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Patinkin Does It His Way

Filichia finds that, for better or for worse, Mandy Patinkin always does things his own special way. logo
Mandy's first somewhat overindulgent solo album
I remember that day in the '80s when I first played a CD simply titled Mandy Patinkin. When it reached "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" the vamp and the first few seconds of Patinkin's delivery immediately had me pushing the "repeat" button, for I knew from the few impressive seconds I'd heard that I'd be listening to this cut dozens upon dozens of times in a row.

But when the cut concluded, I repealed the "repeat" button. And when the album finished, I removed the CD, put it in an envelope, and mailed it to John -- my oldest and dearest friend, for whom Patinkin can do no wrong. I felt differently. Granted, the Great Depression in this country was a terrible thing, but the sturm und drang that Patinkin showed in needing a dime was a display of overacting that I felt I couldn't bear even one more time. "Somewhat overindulgent," goes the now-famous Mandy Patinkin parody in Forbidden Broadway, set to the tune of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." But "somewhat" is a gentle word to describe Patinkin's overindulgence while singing, and we all know that Gerard Alessandrini would have used a much stronger adverb had he not needed a word that would put "Somewhere" in our heads so that we would make the association with "Over the Rainbow."

Yet there I was with John last week in Williamstown, Massachusetts to see Mandy Patinkin in Christopher Hampton's version of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. I do believe that when Patinkin came out for his curtain call, John was the first one out of his seat to give the man a standing ovation. To my surprise, I might have been the second one up.

Patinkin played Tomas Stockmann, a man of much importance as the chief medical officer of a small but prosperous town. His brother Peter has done well, too; he's the town's mayor and is very pleased that land and property taxes, as well as welfare and unemployment, are down. The reason: Tourists come from miles around to partake of the town's therapeutic mineral baths. But they won't be coming much longer, for Tomas's research has shown that the baths are polluted and must be closed. (How ironic that this play, which pits politics vs. science, was being revived just as we were hearing reports that some powers-that-be may not have been 100% honest when telling us about the quality of downtown Manhattan air after September 11.) Tomas truly believes that he's doing the town a great service, and he's already embarrassed at the thought that his fellow townspeople might honor him with at least a party if not a parade. "All I've done is my duty," he says, meaning just that.

Oh, how the audience initially giggled at Tomas's naiveté, then gurgled with laughter at it! Yet I could feel their palpable affection for Tomas, too, and Patinkin was certainly a reason why. Unlike the Tomases of many other productions I've seen, Patinkin did not play him as a ramrod-stiff, nerdy scientist with no personality or humor. At the beginning, when Tomas announced that he was "pleased and happy," Patinkin showed it by getting lackadaisically comfy on the sofa. When he said, "We're earning nearly as much as we're spending," he said it not in an angry way but in an offhand manner that suggested the inevitability of spending disposable income when you've got it. Patinkin and director Gerald Freedman also gave the play contemporary energy, having Tomas jog out when he was told that he had a letter waiting for him -- the lab report with the information that would turn the town against him.

Why was Patinkin so good in the role? After all, his musical training couldn't help him here. (The play did offer him the opportunity to pick up a hat and cane, but only in that he found those items belonging to his brother, who was hiding in a back room so that Tomas wouldn't know he was there working against him.) Of course, Patinkin's Juilliard training and vast experience with dramatic roles served him well. But somehow, as odd as this sounds, I think that the way the guy chooses to sing his songs has something to do with his success as Tomas Stockmann.

Last year, when Musical Theatre Works got Patinkin to do a sit-down for their subscriber audience, they asked me to do the interviewing. I saved my toughest question for last, figuring if I asked it at the beginning, Patinkin might be uncooperative for the rest of the night. "Okay," I said, "you've heard the charges: 'Somewhat overindulgent,' 'over the top,' and worse than that. What do you say to them?" Patinkin very calmly replied that he himself had actually questioned the way he sang from time to time but started feeling okay about it after a confab with noted radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, who said, "Mandy, that's you. That's who you really are." After that, he decided "I gotta be me!" and continued his all-out attack on material.

Mandy Patinkin in An Enemy of the People
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
In An Enemy of the People, Patinkin played a man who says what comes from his heart and isn't concerned with whatever consequences he'll endure. His great (yes, great) performance as Tomas just might have come from doing things in his own single-minded fashion, getting criticized for it, but continuing to do as he sees fit because that's who he is. The play sure had moments that would suggest this. Peter told Tomas, "You have a deep-rooted tendency to go your own way." Later, Patinkin told the newspaper employee who was to put his treatise in print, "Don't cut any of the exclamation points. In fact, add some." (I smiled, thinking that Patinkin often adds exclamation points to the songs he sings.) And later still, when a newspaper employee noted of Tomas's paper that "every word has the weight of a sledgehammer," that struck me as an even better description of what Patinkin often does with his songs.

No, Tomas doesn't agree with his wife's counsel of "moderation in all things," and Patinkin doesn't, either, when he sings. But moderation wasn't on the minds of Ibsen and Hampton, who gave Tomas a second-act speech that's so long, it makes Howard Roark's harangue in The Fountainhead seem like a sonnet. Mandy lovers in the audience must have feared that their hero was destroying his voice during this harangue, which lasted more than a dozen minutes, while Mandy haters may have hoped he was doing just that. Whatever the case, there was Patinkin: feverishly looking through the fourth wall, desperately speaking to us townspeople in assembly, hoping that the next line he said would convince us that, yes, he was right, that ethical behavior is more important than the almighty kroner.

Tomas didn't succeed, of course -- though there was a marvelous moment where someone in the audience was so moved with what Ibsen, Hampton, and Patinkin had to say that he burst into applause, prompting a nearby audience member to applaud as well. Patinkin was so in the moment that he thrust his right arm forward and made a decisive, hand-open gesture as if to say, "See? They understand! Case closed." Later in the speech, he also ad-libbed that "aside from one or two people here," nobody understood him, and that "The strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone."

Well, as the mayor said in the play, "Opinion is such an extremely variable matter." I'm not sure that I'd like to hear Patinkin sing Sinatra's signature song, "(I Did It) My Way," but I do believe he'd deliver a convincing rendition of it. The season is about 100 days old, which means we're not even at the one-third mark, but I won't be surprised if Patinkin's is the best dramatic performance I see in the entire 2003-2004 semester. And remember, I'm not a fan -- or, at least, I wasn't before.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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