Patinkin rolls with no 'Hope' One of a kind: When Mandy Patinkin steps on the stage, the songs he performs one night may be different from the ones he sang the night before.

February 22, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Mandy Patinkin makes up his own private story for every song he sings in concert -- but don't ask him what they are. He's not telling.

"All I want you to see is someone connected to the words," he says, speaking by car phone as he drives along the Palisades Parkway to his home in New York City.

"I want you to find your own story. Having it specific allows me to perform it in a simpler fashion. I know that might sound ironic coming from a guy who's rarely known for being simple."

No, simple has never been easy for Mr. Patinkin, who tellingly includes "Anyone Can Whistle" among his favorite songs. ("It's all so simple. Relax, let go, let fly. So someone tell me why can't I?") The multi-faceted performer, with a Tony for his work in "Evita" and an Emmy for his role on "Chicago Hope," is often accused of using his distinctive tenor to off-putting effect.

His tendency to scream "Nobody's home!" in the usually lighthearted "Me and My Shadow." Sliding into falsetto at the end of Harry Chapin's "Taxi." Or, on his latest album, "Oscar & Steve," exposing the bitter emotion beneath the pretty-pretty melody of "You've Got to be Carefully Taught."

Even his most positive reviews reveal a certain ambivalence toward his style: "Mr. Patinkin finds the kernels of raw emotion in a song " a New York Times reviewer wrote in a generally glowing review, "and vomits them up."

"Vomit?" Mr. Patinkin repeats. "Isn't that nice."

This Friday and Saturday, Mr. Patinkin brings his one-man concert tour to the Lyric Opera House. At least half the material will be from "Oscar & Steve," the recent album that celebrates two Broadway giants, Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim.

The pairing makes sense on several levels. Hammerstein was a lyricist who worked with Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern; Mr. Sondheim broke in as a lyricist before gaining acclaim for his own scores. The two men also enjoyed a close personal relationship, with Hammerstein acting as a mentor to Mr. Sondheim, then a teen-age neighbor in Bucks County, Pa.

The liner notes quote Mr. Sondheim as saying: " if Oscar had been a geologist, I would have become one, too."

"Oscar & Steve" also makes sense as a project for Mr. Patinkin, 43. He appeared as the painter Georges Seurat in Mr. Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" and has never recorded a concert album without at least one of Mr. Sondheim's songs. His version of "Soliloquy," from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel," has long been one of his concert staples.

Released in October, "Oscar & Steve" sold 100,000 copies in a month, an impressive figure for an album of its type. Since then, Mr. Patinkin has been touring off and on, performing the songs for audiences in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles.

His schedule sounds grueling. But it's, well, a Sunday in the park compared to his one-year stint on "Chicago Hope." Mr. Patinkin, who had never done a television series, played Dr. Geiger on the CBS show, an intense, driven character at the center of the ensemble drama.

The part won Mr. Patinkin an Emmy last year, but not before the long hours and long distance wreaked havoc on his family -- his wife, actress-writer Kathryn Grody, and their two sons, Isaac and Gideon. He asked to be released from his contract, and the show's creator, David Kelley, complied. The Emmy statuette doesn't remind him of the work, only of what it meant for his family.

"It reminds me of almost losing my family," he says. "One of the greatest gifts of 'Chicago Hope' was to finally teach me I can no longer just say my family comes first, I better mean it."

"Chicago Hope" had other legacies, introducing Mr. Patinkin to more people in one night than those who saw him in the entire run of "Sunday in the Park with George." The result has been more projects, more offers.

"It's helped business, you bet," says Mr. Patinkin, who has always juggled stage and film projects. "That box, that television box has an amazing power."

But the concerts, which he started giving in 1989 at the suggestion of the Public Theater's Joseph Papp, remain his favorite work. He was hooked from the early minutes of his first one, when an audience member screamed out: "Don't worry, we love you!"

No two shows are alike, he says. And, it's true, Mr. Patinkin is known for starting songs over, or abruptly dropping them out of his repertoire if they don't work on a particular night. Of course, such behavior just feeds the "over-the-top" talk.

"I'll tell you this story about that," Mr. Patinkin says, not long after he rolls through a toll booth and pays his $1.45.

"With 'Oscar & Steve,' I had just finished the record and I wanted Stephen [Sondheim] to give me some criticism. He said, 'You know how they criticize me for writing dissonant chords? There are places where it's big, and I'm afraid they're going to criticize you for that.'

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