Manilow Songbook “I Am Music” Croons Crowds at Plaza Theatre

By Bill Hirschman

The cruise ship has docked.

Since South Florida companies have developed, rehearsed and exported so many musical revues to seagoing auditoriums, a turnabout was inevitable.

In this case, the “S.S. Barry Manilow” songbook  I Am Music! has tied up at the new Plaza Theatre in Manalapan.

Your reaction to this entry depends precisely on your enjoyment of the cruise ship level of manufactured entertainment. A lot of people in the Plaza opening night left downright enraptured. More demanding audiences are going to be, well, more demanding.

Barry Manilow is a secret guilty pleasure for a million Boomers and, judging by the audience Thursday, their parents. Manilow is a talented composer, lyricist, producer, arranger and musical director with an unapologetic pop romantic sensibility and a bent for anthems and ballads that echo an earlier era. I admit to having five on my iPod.

All of Manilow’s greatest hits are here; you can make up the set list yourself.  If you really are a fan of Manilow, you’ll miss his particular honey-smooth smooth tone and flawless phrasing. If you just want to hear lovely songs and didn’t make out to his voice on the radio in the backseat, you likely won’t mind.

That raw material was irresistible to creator/ director Kevin Black, who honed his creative teeth, in fact, developing shows for cruise lines. I didn’t know that fact until I Googled him after the show. But I would have bet you all a steak dinner at Ruth’s Chris that was the case even before I turned on the computer.

Black has the formula down cold: four singers, four dancers, large Pepsodent smiles, soulful gazes that rarely meet the audience’s and an endless parade of spangled, sequined costumes that sort of fit. A karaoke feel suffuses the evening since the singers often stand still and hold microphones to their mouths as they croon to a lush soundtrack of canned music, sweetened with digital background singers. There is no scenery, just images projected onto a screen covering the back wall depicting a backstage, snowfalls, etc., etc.

With one exception, the singers are all competent if not inspiring. Ditto for the dancers’ energetic if not always synchronized execution of choreography by Black, John Hensley, Isabel Trelles and Ben Bagby

Everyone’s working hard and this is not an untalented bunch. None of this is awful. It just feels synthetic and manipulatively crafted like second-rate Disney.

The asterisk here is the aforementioned Bagby. He’s in a different show and that’s a compliment. Doing quintuple duty as co-choreographer, musical arranger, musical director, singer and dancer, Bagby has the precision, polish and verve of a veteran Broadway song-and-dance man that the others are aiming for. As the love child of Johnny Mathis and Ben Vereen, he kicks the show up a notch or four when he’s the focus of a razzamatazz number such as “Dancin’ Fool.”

Still, credit the others with some moderately heartfelt moments: Craig Strang on “Trying to Get the Feeling Again,” Marisa Guida on “The Old Songs,” and Miami native Mimi Jiminez on “Somewhere Down the Road.” All four deserve a bow for pulling off the tongue-twisting challenge of the brilliant words and four-part arrangement of “American Bandstand.”

Andrea Cavrich, Lisa Malservi, Fallon D’Eliseo and Floridian Teddy Talbot all throw themselves into the dance movements.

There isn’t a book so much as a premise of sorts: a bunch of singers and dancers who knew each other years earlier meet to put on a new show! That narrative arc lasts about 10 minutes unless you count the rueful ballads sung to each other that imply everyone on stage had a derailed love affair with someone else in the cast. By the second act, when they simply perform the show, any pretense of a narrative has been left at the concession stand. But then again, how many songbook revues do tell a story besides Jersey Boys?

A side note: This show has no relation other than the source material to the Manilow musical songbook revue, I Write the Songs, created and produced by Gary Waldman and Phil Hinton at the Atlantis Playhouse in 2004.

One profound sadness unrelated to the merits of the show: This is third production at the Plaza Theatre, the brainchild of producer Alan Jacobson. He has scheduled revues through the summer and then a mixed slate for the coming season including Driving Miss Daisy and Next to Normal. You have to applaud his commitment and wish him well.

But this is the space that the late Florida Stage occupied for so many years. Ghosts float through the auditorium, fleeting glimpses of truly great evenings of theater, ones you put up against others in your theater-going memory book. It’s enough to make you cry.

I Am Music! The Songs of Barry Manilow runs through May 27 at The Plaza Theatre, 262 South Ocean Boulevard, Manalapan (the Ocean Blvd. bridge is closed for two years; come across the Intracoastal Waterway by Lake Road on the north or Boynton Beach Blvd. from the south). Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Tickets $42.  Call (561) 588-1820 or visit theplazatheatre.net.

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