What are we to do about Mandy Patinkin? The veteran actor-singer is almost scarily talented, with a versatile voice, a Jolson-like performer's need to please, and a devoted fan base--mostly distaff and mature. But the rest of us have been put off at regular intervals through the years by Good Mandy's two lethal alter egos, Manic Mandy and Velveteen Mandy. M.M. whips himself up into a frenzy and pummels his material into pulp, while V.M. is obsessed with beautiful timbre and rrround tones, pinching his tenor into an uncomfortable whine that sounds like a cross between Mickey Mouse and a small dog with elongated vowels. When given the right material and directed with a firm hand, Patinkin can be affecting, even brilliant: Recall his performances in Sunday in the Park with George or The Secret Garden. But when his actor's extroversion intrudes and roams the stage unchecked, it's time to look for the nearest exit or call an exorcist.
All three Mandys make an appearance on his new CD Kidults (Nonesuch PRCD 300579), a tie-in to Patinkin's current children's show tour and his latest attempt at niche marketing. (His only New York appearance is at the Neil Simon on September 10.) His previous specialty tour, the Yiddish song-cycle Mamaloshen, spotlighted Manic Mandy and Velveteen Mandy at their least restrained; ostensibly, that show was about exploring cultural roots, but really it might have been retitled Look Ma, I'm Shvitzing. This time out, Patinkin aims for the sort of kid-targeted but adult-friendly bifurcation that served Danny Kaye so well decades ago--and, in fact, he borrows liberally from Kaye's repertoire. The good news is that Good Mandy, aided by Paul Ford's elegant arrangements and the civilizing presence of guest artist Kristin Chenoweth, holds center stage for large stretches.
The not-so-good news is that the other Mandys are constantly in the wings, ready to grab the spotlight at the slightest provocation. They get the upper hand from the beginning, with an "If I Only Had a Brain/a Heart/the Nerve" that goes from torpid ("Brain") to precious ("Heart") to hammy ("Nerve," sung in an unnatural baritone that again seems to channel Jolson). Next up is a "Minute Waltz" (similar to the comic version heard on Barbra Streisand's Color Me Barbra album) in which Patinkin aims bravely to punch every syllable and hit every note but simply moves too fast. The following cut, an elaborate patchwork of "Singin' in the Bathtub" (a fun obscurity from Warner Bros.' 1929 Show of Shows), "Singin' in the Rain," and "The Barber of Seville," is easier to take. Patinkin's natural extroversion might have been curbed a bit more ("I'm singin' in the rain, yessir!"), but this is an interestingly constructed medley and it should make kids chuckle.
Then someone evidently hands Mandy a Valium and, as he relaxes, so do we. His "Ugly Duckling" is gentle and witty, with particularly ripe quacks. Two tracks with Chenoweth also go well: a nearly six-minute "Soon It's Gonna Rain" with unnecessary sound effects but loads of charm, and an odd pairing of "Time in a Bottle" and the old chestnut "School Days," helped by a pretty arrangement and a soulful performance by Chenoweth. A third duet, "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?," suffers from hard-sell orchestration and an adenoidal Mandy's screaming like Gilbert Gottfried at a Knicks game.
The rest of the CD is a mixed bag, marred by song couplings that don't always make sense. Patinkin is at his sensitive, low-key best in "Cat's in the Cradle," mated curiously with "Japanese Sandman." He's ingratiating on " 'A' You're Adorable," which flows into a rendition of "Getting To Know You" that's slower than the Long Island Expressway on Labor Day. But he's back on form in the Dietz-Schwartz novelty "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" from 1948's Inside USA.
Manic Mandy breaks loose again on "Holiday for Strings" and "A Tisket, A Tasket," while Velveteen Mandy returns--with a vibrato you could drive a Navigator through--for Maury Yeston's sweet lullaby "New Words." Here, he sounds a little like Bryan Batt's hilarious Mandy parody in Forbidden Broadway. "April in Fairbanks," from New Faces of 1956, is merely baffling, with a stodgy Palm Court accompaniment, deadpan delivery, and an odd Bronx accent; whatever Patinkin's comic intent, it doesn't come off. The nadir of the album is certainly an interminable "The Emperor's New Clothes," tucked between halves of Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't"--possibly the thickest ham sandwich ever committed to CD.
Is there enough here to divert the average 10-year-old from endless rounds of Tomb Raider? One applauds Patinkin's effort to win young friends for musical theater and the Great American Songbook, even if the results are inconsistent. And the better tracks may have the bonus benefit of acclimating small ears to musical arrangements free of howling synthesizers and lyrics that aren't a solid wall of expletives. With careful programming, listeners of all ages can squeeze about a half-hour's worth of enjoyment from this new disc. But where Manic and Velveteen Mandy intrude, the CD perhaps should carry a parent's advisory: Certain portions may cause children under 60 to cower beneath their bedcovers.