COULD IT BE MAGIC? THE BARRY MANILOW SONGBOOK, Mercury Theater. Like the recordings that inspired it, this musical revue is alternately schlocky and sophisticated, corny and catchy. Written and directed by 70s superstar Manilow and veteran TV writers Mitzie and Ken Welch (whose credits include Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett's brilliant 1962 Carnegie Hall concert), the show sometimes comes off as lounge-act kitsch--the costumes are tacky, and the overenergetic group numbers epitomize Vegas vulgarity. But much of the two-act evening is smart, creative, and engaging.
The 40-plus songs--by such writers as Jon Hendricks, Count Basie, Johnny Mercer, Jule Styne, Frank Loesser, and Jim Steinman as well as Manilow and his frequent collaborators Marty Panzer, Bruce Sussman, and Jack Feldman--take on a funky new gloss under the musical direction of Chicago jazz vocalist Ron Walters Jr. Versatile, virtuosic song-and-dance man Kye Brackett's slick musical staging is superbly executed by the five-person ensemble: Chicago powerhouse E. Faye Butler, longtime Manilow protege Debra Byrd, Michael K. Lee, Keely Vasquez, and Brackett himself. Sometimes poking fun at the material ("Can't Smile Without You" is done as a cute clown pantomime by Brackett), the performers also find surprising dramatic range in such tunes as "I Am Your Child," the exquisite "When October Goes," and "Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again," demonstrating that Manilow's music can be acted rather than merely emoted.
Boasting good songs, catchy arrangements, and a dynamite cast, Could It Be Magic? proves there's more than MOR to Manilow's music. With reworking, this could be a theatrical hit in the vein of Smokey Joe's Cafe.