Mandy Patinkin(Photo: © Carole Segal)
Mandy Patinkin
(Photo: © Carole Segal)
Among musical theater devotees, Mandy Patinkin is a litmus test. He either thrills you to the core with his theatrical extremism or his take-no-prisoners style repels you. We are proud members of the first group. If you're in the latter camp, read no further -- unless you're also a Stephen Sondheim fan.

It's true that even some of that great composer-lyricist's most loyal devotees might not want to travel the road that Patinkin is traveling in his new concert show at the Henry Miller Theatre, Celebrating Sondheim. But, in our view, there is no singer on this planet better suited to explore the depths of Sondheim's genius and to demonstrate it through the brilliance of his own talents.

This is an intense, spare, intermissionless 90-minute show with no patter, relatively little movement, and few opportunities for the audience to applaud -- yet an extraordinary performance explodes on stage. Mandy Patinkin approaches the work of Sondheim like a new lover, discovering the genius afresh with a passion that could only derive from feelings of exquisite desire and fundamental respect. Patinkin and Sondheim are really cut from the same musical theater cloth; that's why Sondheim's deeply personal song "Everybody Says Don't" applies so directly to both of them. Each in his own way, these gentlemen have broken the rules to create something original in musical theater writing and performance, respectively. And this show, based upon the new CD Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim (Nonesuch Records) is an astonishingly original exploration of Sondheim's work.

One of the great songs from Sondheim's Company is titled "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" and, surely, Patinkin drives plenty of people nuts with his unconventional performance style; but you've got to be a little crazy to do what this artist does with Sondheim's songs. He takes bits and pieces of them, both large and small, and recombines them into extended song cycles, creating new meanings or extracting hidden truths from these compositions.

The key to understanding what Patinkin is doing in this show can be found in the lyric from "Lesson #8" from Sunday in the Park with George, which he sings within the first few minutes of his concert: "See George attempting to see a connection." That's what Patinkin is doing, attempting to relate to Sondheim's work in his own idiosyncratic fashion. Like Georges Seurat, and like Sondheim himself, Patinkin connects the dots in a brand new way. Better you should be surprised by what he does than that we should spill the beans -- and no, that is not a veiled reference to Into the Woods. Suffice it to say that Patinkin scours Sondheim's shows, using both famous and less well known songs to reveal a cauldron of emotion in the creative output of a composer who is sometimes accused of being cool and excessively intellectual.

It will upset some people to hear that most of the songs in this show are not sung through; what Patinkin has created are not medleys in the traditional sense. It should also be noted that such crowd-pleasing items as "Being Alive" aren't included here. You've got to hand it to Mandy: He doesn't pander to his audience. That doesn't mean that everything works. Still, as Sondheim wrote and Mandy sings, "Maybe you're going to fall / But it's better than not starting at all!" (That's a section of "Everybody Says Don't" from Anyone Can Whistle).

The possessor of a musical theater voice that has no equal among his peers, Patinkin -- like Zorro -- cuts with a flourish through vocal registers, from barrel-chested baritone to tender tenor. His singing continues to astonish. Working closely with longtime collaborator Paul Ford at the piano, he demonstrates a rare combination of ambition matched by excellence. Mandy Patinkin will continue to celebrate Sondheim at the Henry Miller Theater through January 6, on the evenings when Urinetown is dark.