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Patinkin excelling in music

Manic actor delights in 2nd career as a crooner

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Oscar Levant once said of his rambunctious pal, "An evening with George Gershwin is a very George Gershwin evening."

The same could be said of a conversation with Mandy Patinkin. You don't talk to Mandy so much as bear witness to him as he shoots words through the telephone like careening projectiles. The famous manic energy he brings to every role? That's him, man. Everything Patinkin says is delivered in italics.

Perhaps it's that galvanic energy that has given Patinkin, a hard-working Broadway, TV and film actor, a busy second career in the concert hall. As a singer, he's a consistently dependable draw.

But it's not vocal beauty or sublime musical craftsmanship that draws them in. Patinkin is an unorthodox crooner with a highly eclectic repertoire, and his voice — by his own admission, minimally trained — is an indefinable mix of booming baritone and fluting falsetto.

"I give it my best shot. That's all I can tell you," Patinkin said of his inimitable style. "I don't think about it in terms of energy or delivery, just in terms of what I want to feel and convey and what the words say to me. And what's going on that day."

These days, Patinkin is conveying a profoundly different set of feelings than he did when his present tour began at Broadway's Neil Simon Theater on Sept. 10.

"There've been a few changes since then," Patinkin said.

Indeed. For the first time, Patinkin's tour has had trouble filling houses — a direct result, he thinks, of the events of Sept. 11.

Other things have changed since Sept. 11 as well. Patinkin no longer performs a controversial, concert-ending medley about the troubles in the Middle East.

He would prop small Israeli and Palestinian flags on a table and sing the Israeli national anthem in Hebrew. Then he'd quickly segue into an angry version of "South Pacific's" anti-racism rant, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," followed by "Children Will Listen."

The segment has been altered in light of current sensitivities, Patinkin said.

"That (sequence) was meant as a prayer; it was a prayer for peace in the Middle East. After 9-11, I decided I did not need to have it done in the same way. I now end every concert just with 'You've Got to Be Taught' and 'Listen.' I don't use the flags anymore. I used to knock the flags over; it sounded like an explosion. But those fireballs are buried in our heads forever now. I've re-arranged the song to be sung very quietly, like the lullaby of a child — just above a whisper."

Each concert tour features songs from Patinkin's newest album, and this one contains several selections from the recently released CD of songs for children, "Kidults." The project was a labor of love that proved surprisingly difficult and took longer than the singer anticipated.

Patinkin recalls that he started singing in a synagogue choir in his native Chicago when he was 7 or 8. But acting soon grabbed his attention.

"I got involved in a program at the Young Men's Jewish Council Youth Center on the south side of Chicago. They had a drama program run by a wonderful man named Bob Condor. I did several shows there. I fell in love with (acting) and decided that this is what I wanted to do. I trained to be a classical actor but didn't sing a note."

Still, even as a drama major at New York's Juilliard School, Patinkin found himself attracted to the first-rate music-making that went on just down the hall.

"I used to take a nap in the orchestra room when (Leonard) Bernstein was rehearsing with the orchestra. It was great. When I was lying on the floor listening to Lenny talk to the musicians, I learned how to shape a song. He had the orchestra play a phrase, then began talking to them not in musical terms, but in terms of imagery: the storm and the woods and these animals running. He finished telling this story to the orchestra and they played the music again. It felt like a whole different piece. I don't read music or know musical terms; I just talk to my piano player the way Lenny talked to his musicians."

Patinkin's repertoire is wide-ranging, but his favorite era is Broadway's golden age, particularly the shows that came out between the wars. American songwriting craft reached a pinnacle then that has never been equaled, he said.

"I look for songs that have the words that will talk to me — the thoughts and ideas and wishes that will speak to me. They're America's classical music, written by men and women, all of them geniuses, who led difficult lives themselves and had the wit, wisdom and charm to put those songs into the world. I get to be the messenger of those songs. It's a great honor. That's why I put so much into it."