June 05, 2020

Thoroughly Unmodern Mandy Gala star Patinkin breathes new life into classic songs

The phone rings. It’s Mandy Patinkin calling. An hour early.

“I’m calling from a car on the way to the Kansas City airport to go to … where? Oh, yeah, Cleveland. I got a bunch of these calls to make, so I’m calling early so I can do something else when I was supposed to be talking to you.”

How to reply to the Tony and Emmy award-winning actor, who will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Maine Center for the Arts gala? “No, that doesn’t work for me.” I think not. To say that would be meshuga. Begging journalists can’t be choosers.

A fast-talking New Yorker on a balky cell phone. As professor Harold Hill (and maybe Patinkin himself) would sing, “You got trouble/right here in River City.”

The man the New Yorker called “a musical force of nature” describes his “In Concert” show as “the whole potpourri.” There will be songs from his past albums, Yiddish melodies, Stephen Sondheim tunes and cuts from his new “Kidults” album.

On “Kidults,” songs range from “If I Only Had a Brain” to “A Tisket a Tasket” to “Getting to Know You.” Kristin Chenoweth, Broadway’s latest darling, duets on three cuts.

How did that album develop? The title comes from a phrase used by former New York Times critic Vincent Canby in his review of the first “Die Hard” film. The vocalist tries to explain the release’s origins, while being interrupted frequently by “Hello? Can you hear me?” on both ends.

After many requests, Patinkin and his musical director, Paul Ford, were working on a children’s album.

“I wasn’t interested in doing just a children’s album,” Patinkin continues. “I remembered Vincent Canby’s phrase ‘kidult.’ I thought ‘I’m really a kid, even though I’m an adult.’ So I said let’s make songs for the kid in adults. We started with 100 songs and whittled that down, and ended up with this album. It works for adults as well as children, which is really important to me.”

As it usually works in their collaborations, Ford, whom Patinkin has described as “the Library of Congress for this stuff,” found most of the songs for “Kidults.” The exception was “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which Patinkin’s teen sons, Isaac and Gideon, brought to him off Harry Chapin’s “Greatest Hits” album, which he had given them.

Patinkin is best known for his work in musical theater. He won a Tony for his role as Che in “Evita” and was nominated again for his starring role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” He also has appeared in films as diverse as “The Princess Bride,” “Dick Tracy” and “Yentl.”

Many of those far from Broadway know him best for his Emmy-winning role as cardiothoracic surgeon Jeffrey Geiger on “Chicago Hope.” He walked away after one year to spend more time with his wife, actress and writer Kathryn Grody, and their sons. He returned to the then-flagging series for several episodes in 1999, as a favor to creator David Kelley.

Still, despite an occasional guest spot or TV movie, don’t expect Patinkin to return to the tube anytime soon.

“Maybe if something came along that really interested me,” he says. “I do shy away from it; it’s not at the top of my list. My favorite thing to do is concertizing.”

In the middle of this explanation, Patinkin shouts out, “Barbecue.” Realizing that seems incongruous, to say the least, he explains, “There’s a guy pulling a smoker. I love barbecue. I didn’t get much sleep last night because I ate too much barbecue.”

What are his other passions? There’s yoga, which he tries to practice even when on tour. Also, like his Geiger character, Patinkin is a big fan of Lionel toy trains.

Next up for Patinkin is a show dedicated to Sondheim. He has recorded 26 of the composer’s songs through the years.

How does Sondheim touch people?

“He’s the Shakespeare of our time,” Patinkin says. “He’s brilliant, he’s simple, he’s intuitive, he’s intelligent. He says everything that I would say if I could write. So I steal his words. I’m just the mailman.”

What else does he want to do?

“I’m looking for a play, especially the classics,” he blurts. “If you know someone who’s interested, have ’em get in touch with me.”

Still, it’s the concert stage that has the strongest pull on the staccato Patinkin.

“It’s a live venue, and you’re with the people,” he explains. “I didn’t grow up with these songs. The lyrics in them are what affect me the most. They’re written by geniuses who went through profound struggles but who could put their thoughts down on paper. To be with a lot of people in an auditorium, and to listen to these geniuses’ stuff, is comforting.”

Also, it’s the best form of entertainment in troubling times, he adds.

“It’s the most immediate form,” Patinkin reasons. “It should echo what’s going on in the world, but at the same time shouldn’t wallow in it, which is important now. The president said to get back to our normal lives. So we need to sing, which means to live as far as I’m concerned.”

The gala reception will be held at 5 p.m., with the Patinkin performance at 7 and the dinner after the concert. For information or tickets, call 581-1755 or (800) MCA-TIXX.

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