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REVIEW: Manilow still has that magic - no miracle required

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Diana Nollen  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 4:15 pm   ::  

Even now, 39 years after he burst onto the pop charts with "Mandy," Barry Manilow can still charm the socks off his Fanilows.

It's been 16 years since he's played Cedar Rapids, and Saturday night (6/22/13) at the U.S. Cellular Center, 3,900 people were screaming from the moment the lights dimmed over the audience and swept over the curtain that rose with a dramatic theatrical flair, revealing the man, the master, the music -- the Manilow.

Dressed in black with a bright blue sequined jacket, he sparkled even before he wrapped his golden voice around his platinum lyrics. I've seen him every time he's come to Cedar Rapids, and in some of my past reviews, I've taken him to task for sounding raspy and/or avoiding his signature soaring endings. Not so this time around.

A newly minted 70, he's joined the Ageless Generation of pop rockers like Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Barbra Streisand -- and country's 80-year-old Willie Nelson -- who just keep getting better and are still looking mighty fine, even in their closeups.

Bouncing through "It's a Miracle," he quickly slipped into one of his most dramatic love songs, romancing the largely female crowd with "Could it be Magic." His music swirled through a galaxy of green glow-sticks twinkling through the darkness. These free party favors, handed out at the door, created their own mesmerizing magic throughout the 90-minute show.

He enchanted us with a string of hits -- from the sublime "Weekend in New England" and "Trying to Get the Feeling Again" to the poppy "American Bandstand" theme, the bubbly "Brooklyn Blues" and an a cappella intro to "I Made it Through the Rain."

We also got lots of personal glimpses into what got him through that rain, beginning with the sweetest tribute to his Russian immigrant grandfather. He was the first to recognize the musical talent brewing inside the child, and walked him across the Brooklyn Bridge each Saturday afternoon to the "Record Your Voice" store in Times Square. The grown-up star played snippets of that very first recording, in which he refused to sing "Happy Birthday," despite his grandfather's urging. He then melted us even more by singing "This One's For You" for his Grandpa Joe, with a sepia photograph of the two projected on the backdrop.

In a May 30 phone interview, Manilow told me he considers his fans his friends, so the whole evening had an easy conversational flow, injected with lots of playful humor.

One of the coolest tricks came when he sang a duet with his 31-year-old self on his very first hit, "Mandy." Clad in a formal white jacket, he sat at the grand piano and looked even more handsome, with a confidence borne of experience, while his younger self looked a bit like a scared rabbit. It was a truly magical moment.

He took us back to our disco days with "Copacabana," back to the '60s with covers of "Let's Hang On" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," then propelled us to the future with a love song off his newly penned musical, "Harmony," which opens in Atlanta in September, then heads to Los Angeles. It's classic Manilow and if the rest of the show is as fabulous as that song, the play will be as big a hit as his recently soldout Broadway concert series.

The evening's penultimate moment came with "I Write the Songs," which still makes this once-young girl cry. Then he kicked it into full party mode returning to "It's a Miracle," shooting off streamer cannons, draping fans in multicolored ribbons.

All in all, it's one of the best concerts I've seen -- and I've seen some truly great concerts, especially this year, as Cedar Rapids celebrates the reopening of the Paramount Theatre and the Cell Center.

Best of all, Manilow seemed genuinely touched by the adoration heaped upon him and his fabulous singers and instrumentalists after each and every song.

"Wow -- You've been just great," he exclaimed. "We've gotta come back here more often. Thank you, thank you, thank you Cedar Rapids."

The pleasure was ours. Come back any time.

And P.S., thanks to the Manilow Music Project, the star who got his start with his high school orchestra, made good on his promise to donate a piano to the Cedar Rapids Community School District. And local fans stepped up to the call for bringing used instruments to the Cell Center, to be refurbished and distributed to area schools. If you'd like to contribute to that cause, West Music is still accepting instruments on behalf of Manilow's outreach project.

"I wouldn't be on this stage tonight if I hadn't joined that orchestra back in Brooklyn," he said.

Looks like he made it.

Related: The man who made the world sing is coming to Cedar Rapids

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