There's a lot to admire about the guy -- and not just that he had the good sense to leave Chicago Hope, only to return when people stopped remembering why it was such a big deal that he left in the first place. Patinkin's probably the last singer left on the American stage who truly appreciates the lost craft of songwriting the George-and-Ira-Gershwin way, who steps out onto that stage every single night to remind you how committed he is to the cause -- right down to going so over the top, he'll occasionally hit rock bottom. Patinkin's a storyteller in the guise of singer, an interpreter who wraps that theatrical voice -- soaring so high, dipping so low, sounding so often as though transported from 1920s Broadway into an era that confuses passionate with overwrought -- around everything from Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein to Randy Newman and Harry Chapin.
He asks only that a song present him with a character into whose skin he can step for a few moments, someone whose story he can recount over a lovely melody in front of an adoring audience. The man's a showman and a troubadour, a vestige and a throwback. Whether he's the title character in Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, Che in the original production of Evita, 88 Keys in Dick Tracy (dueting with, and showing up, the timid Madonna on the lovely ballad "What Can You Lose"), or just crooning Newman's "Political Science" in a throwaway scene from Chicago Hope, Patinkin virtually grinds himself into a frenzy whenever he belts out a phrase. He emotes the way most people breathe, clenching his fists and squeezing tight his eyes; he's a human pinball clad in frumpy dark clothes from head to toe, his outfit a blank black canvas onto which he throws so much affection and affectation. The whole stage is his world.
Here's a guy whose last three albums ranged from 1994's Experiment (which featured "Where or When" alongside Chapin's "Taxi") to a collection of Sondheim and Hammerstein lesser-knowns (1995's Oscar & Steve) to the 1998 Jew-are-you homage Mamaloshen, featuring "Maria" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" rendered in Yiddish; who takes parts in such schlock as Alien Nation and then turns cartwheels in something as minutely grand as The Princess Bride; and who does pedestrian hourlong TV drama while taking his larger-than-life cabaret out on the road for weeks at a time. The man's a dynamo, and not too unlike his Chicago Hope counterpart -- that is, so far out on the high wire, you expect him to fall whenever he opens his mouth and reaches for the high notes, whenever he nearly bursts into tears over something as deceptively benign as "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." But he doesn't fall. He just gracefully rights himself, a ballet dancer in a singer's clothes on the actor's stage.
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