Barry Manilow

Barry Manilow seems bored by repetition, judging by the first half-hour of his current Las Vegas Hilton run. That’s why, when it takes a crazy left turn, you wonder if he has completely lost his mind. And you applaud him for it.

The ’70s ballad king stays put but doesn’t stand still, changing his Hilton showcase more than the Strip’s other resident headliners.

It started in early 2005 as a sort of autobiographical shout-out to the Vegas trouper tradition. By 2007, it followed the course of his home-shopping best-sellers, a quartet of albums remaking pop hits of the ’50s through ’80s.

Manilow isn’t the greatest interpreter, and singing "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing" felt like a bait and switch. For better or worse it was very Old Vegas, prompting me to write:

"Perhaps an underserved audience is going to see him simply because no one else is doing this type of show right now. And his core audience goes along with it. There seems to be a tacit understanding between the singer and his fans: If you want to hear ‘Here at the Mayflower,’ his last stab at original songwriting, you can go home and cue it up."

So guess what? This year, the show has been billed as "Ultimate Manilow: The Hits." And that’s exactly what you get for a half-hour, before it makes a giant detour, into a half-hour-long, fully produced version of … (drum roll please) … "Here at the Mayflower."

A bit of background, which will make you more prepared than the mother and daughter who sat next to me, or the drink-and-singalong quartet to the rear.

"Mayflower" was recorded in 2001. It was Manilow’s first stab at original songwriting since 1984, and his last to date. It’s a concept album, with each song about the life of a different resident inside a Brooklyn apartment building. It was recorded for the small jazz label Concord after Manilow spent years singing show tunes and standards for Arista’s Clive Davis.

You have to be a pretty hard-core fan to have ever heard a note of it.

And if you came to sing along to "Mandy," imagine your surprise to see Manilow put on a cap, scarf and glasses to role-play an old man, singing "Sonny, no one is what they look like, and we’re not what you see, that’s for sure."

It will be interesting to see if Manilow — or the Hilton — pulls the plug on "Mayflower" between this weekend and his return at the end of the month. You have to wonder if anyone’s complaining about 30 minutes of a 75-minute show billed as "The Hits" being anything but.

Commercial sanity aside, however, this is the kind of audacity we should see in Vegas. Manilow and singer-choreographer Kye Brackett staged "Mayflower" as a Broadway minimusical, with Brackett and the three female singers in costume. At one point, there’s a whole nightclub production number for "The Night That Tito Played."

The star reaches back to his second album to fit the obscure cut "Sandra" into the "Mayflower" concept, letting singer Keely Vasquez voice the character as he plays piano on a side stage. Manilow reclaims the spotlight for the earnest "Talk To Me," which puts melodic echoes of his ’70s hits into a frustrated character’s song.

All very strange but admirable, considering what came before was fairly wretched. (Figure the letter grade on this review an average: B for "Mayflower," D for the first part and a little extra credit for the usual confetti party of the "Copacabana" closer.)

For the first half-hour I thought, "What’s his rush?" His pitch wavered, and songs were jammed into medleys. The grand piano rolled around on a moving platform, with film projections of crashing waves to take the already over-the-top "Weekend in New England" through the stratosphere.

I still was trying to make sense of this odd show the next day, when I listened — as everyone must — to the Dennis Bono radio show on KUNV-FM, 91.5. Quite coincidentally, the guest was Melissa Manchester, a Manilow associate since the old days. She wasn’t talking about him, but certainly could have been, when she provided the Rosetta stone:

"The more interested you are in what you’re singing, the more interesting you are to watch."

Maybe that’s why the crowd didn’t burn the joint down during "Mayflower."

Or maybe it was because he was smart enough to do "Mandy" right after.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ or 702-383-0288.

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