June 17 was Barry Manilow's birthday, a fact that never goes unnoticed by Laura Davis--one of Manilow's greatest fans, if not his very greatest. For the last seven years, Davis has produced and hosted a unique musical celebration of her idol's music on his birthday. She started The Big Barry Birthday Bash in 1996 in Minneapolis and brought it with her when she moved here; it has since become an annual event at Don't Tell Mama. This year's show boasted a stupendous cast of singers (stupendous both in quantity and in quality), many of whom flew in from as far away as Minneapolis and Los Angeles. As always, the show proved to be a deliciously insane, Manilowzapoppin' songfest.
Davis joyfully attempted the impossible this time: she had a costume change to match every Manilow modulation. In other words, this was a varied and colorful evening, and not just because of the substantial tour of Davis' closet. From a medley of Manilow commercial jingles (it seems like he wrote for almost every franchise in America) to a maniacally funny sendup of "Copacabana," the show did not lack for self-conscious humor. Still, this was a bash, not a bashing; these people love Barry unabashedly, so the comedy was always good-natured. And when they turned to the ballads, their sincerity, not to mention their talent, was obvious.
Nearly a dozen performers took part in two back-to-back, 90-minute shows. The highlights were many, as Davis was often inspired in her pairings of singer and song. For instance, having funnyman Sidney Myer sing the heartbreaker "Somewhere Down the Road" worked beyond measure because Myer is fundamentally a terrific actor. By the end of the number, the audience would have willingly gone down any road with him.
No one does a Manilow power ballad better than Tom Schmid: This up-and-coming musical theater star planted his feet and commanded the room with "Who Needs to Dream." Jeanne MacDonald gave a stunning rendition of "Sunrise" and Michelle Carter wowed the house with "Say No More." In a playful turnabout, Doug Andersen made a comic gender switch in "Man Wanted." Jarrod Cafaro showed his versatility by offering a sensitive take on "Weekend in New England" and going comically berserk in drag as Lola in the "Copacabana" spoof. One of the moments in the Barry Bash that we particularly enjoy every year is that special moment when Jim Abbott, the show's musical director, pianist and keyboard artist, performs a solo version of "Studio Musician." Abbott isn't an especially gifted singer but he is an actual studio musician; the song is in his soul and he sings it with unadulterated passion.
If you've never seen a Barry Bash, you will want to mark June 17 on next year's calendar. If you've seen a few of the shows, you may be starting to wish that Davis would rotate in some more new songs and rotate out some of the old chestnuts. By the same token, it refreshes this annual event to bring in new talent; it was a boon to the show to have Jeanne MacDonald join the cast in 2001, and there should be an addition to the cast of equal quality and stature every year. Davis wouldn't have to drop any of her stalwart regulars to make room, at least not at first, if she took our second suggestion: Instead of offering two 90-minute shows, she might consider putting on one longer show of perhaps two hours in length, with intermission. Turning this event into a full-length cabaret concert would allow for more material as well as a larger cast--and then Davis would only need one birthday cake (or reasonable facsimile thereof) at the end.