Those looking for a modest, intimate revue of the songs of Barry Manilow will be disappointed: there's absolutely nothing modest about Could It Be Magic? This is a two-edged sword, broad and blunt on one side but sharply-honed on the other.
The broadsword: the show thinks it's a rock concert, rather than a work of theatre. It bludgeons the audience with high energy, computerized lighting effects, and a pumped up, bass-heavy sound system. It's definitely overkill in the 300-seat Mercury Theater. The old rock cliché has a singer say, "Now I wanna' bring things down just a little bit." Well, this show never brings things down, and it should.
Bigger is almost never better in theater, which can be intimate in ways huge concerts can't be. The creators need to find moments when pace, volume and reverb can be reduced, allowing singers to sell emotion with minimal accompaniment ( perhaps solo piano or guitar ) and minimal amplification. And they need to make sure each song has a context. The gospel-rock opening number was super-charged and loud but meaningless, because it had no context. Also, if the troupe gave me everything they had at the very beginning, where could they possibly go?
The sharp edge of Could It Be Magic? is the rich talent and material. The show's 42 tunes feature 16 numbers that Manilow didn't write, including his signature megahits "Mandy" and "I Write the Songs." The idea is to showcase songwriters whose music Manilow has recorded, not just his own. The roster of theater, jazz and pop greats features Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, Johnny Mercer, Jim Steinman, Count Bassie, Jon Hendricks and a dozen more whose names appear in lights around the stage in a clever scenic tribute ( sets and lighting by Seth Jackson ) . Is Manilow suggesting that he and his collaborators ( he usually doesn't write lyrics ) are equal to these giants? He may be right, for his own material is just as varied and good as the work of those he admires.
The talented performers—Kye Brackett, E. Faye Butler, Debra Byrd, Michael K. Lee and Keely Vasquez—are versatile, attractive and multicultural dynamite. They have big voices and dispense comedy, diva turns and dance bits with aplomb, as staged and choreographed by Brackett. The dance element might be enlarged to help make the revue more of a theater piece and less of a club/concert show. The five are backed by a six-piece onstage band led by Ron Walters, Jr. Manilow described the band as "kick-ass," and he's right.
The producers have a choice. They can keep Could It Be Magic? the way it is, and preach only to the converted legions of Barry Manilow fans. Or, they can modify the show to attract theater-goers as well. Manilow has musical theater ambitions as yet unfulfilled. Could It Be Magic? is a good way for him to learn what works in theater and what doesn't. Context and varied dynamics are the keys.