Shaggy dog biting the hand that feeds: Randy Newman at The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

The first concert I ever attended (at least that I remember) was when my parents took this eighth grader to see Bobby McFerrin at the much-vaunted Holidome in Crown Point, Indiana. Just take a moment and let that sentence settle in … and try to contain your envy. Yes, some kids in the late 80s went to see Madonna or Aerosmith or MC Hammer or New Kids on the Block, but for me it was Bobby McFerrin all the way. And this was before “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So there.

The show was in the round, with just McFerrin and maybe a piano. I can’t recall. But with his phenomenal, otherworldly musicality, he rattled (largely acapella) through two hours of amazing numbers, not to mention his complete re-creation of the entire film The Wizard of Oz, including that iconic “I’m melting!” bit.

Flash forward, nearly 30 years (sigh), and I find myself yet again riding along in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to see another Baby Boomer mainstay Randy Newman, this time in Indianapolis. Nothing takes you back to the feeling of being a child like riding in the backseat of your parents’ car on a long car trip – that intoxicating mix of comfort and powerlessness as you cruise down the road listening to the squabbling and the laughter, to music you don’t recognize and familial history references you do. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

Palladium

Palladium

So it is with this context that we took in Newman’s concert at Carmel, Indiana’s palatial music hall, the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts. Such a musical hall Indiana has never before seen – a concert venue that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher, if overdosed with Benzedrine by Liberace’s hairdresser, after visiting the Palace of Versailles or Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.” It really is beautiful and strange, with a byzantine entrance and egress system that made me feel like I was playing Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap.

However, there isn’t a bad seat in the house (nor a reasonably priced one), with Phantom of the Opera-esque box seats at every turn, polished cherry and marble floors, phenomenal acoustics and lighting, and super-cushy chairs.

As we sat there taking in the opulence, Newman lumbered on stage, after a loving introduction by Michael Feinstein himself. You see, Feinstein, a Columbus, Ohio native, helped get the Center established five or so years ago, alongside his husband Terrence Flannery, as a permanent monument to the Great American Songbook and to our musical theater traditions. The space also houses The Great American Songbook Foundation, which is very much worth visiting if you have some time to spare before a show there. They are great about arranging tours.

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

For over two hours, it was just Newman, his piano, and a very responsive audience. Newman isn’t quite the showman that McFerrin was/is – likely an unfair comparison since they’re such different artists, and I am judging them across a divide of 30 years. Ah well.

But what Newman lacked in showmanship, he made up in shaggy charm. He would periodically play wrong notes, stop, look up at the audience, shake his head, and say things like, “I never was a very good pianist.” Then, he would dive back into plunking out notes for many of his signature songs like “I Love L.A.,” “Short People,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”

A highlight for me was his performance of “Love Story (You and Me),” a Newman tune covered previously by artists as diverse as Harry Nilsson, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte. The song is a poignant charmer and has not aged a bit. Newman delivered it with aplomb, his frogs-and-molasses voice the perfect accent to the song’s lilting, loping melody.

Newman peppered his set-list, which pretty much seemed made up as he went along, with anecdotes about his life as a child of Los Angeles, as a child of the 60s, and as a child of a movie soundtrack dynasty (he is the nephew of acclaimed film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman and the cousin of Thomas Newman). The casual vibe he affected was on the whole delightful, though a bit more preparation and variety would have benefited the slow-going second act.

An artist of Newman’s caliber with such an accomplished history in pop, theater, and movie music is pretty much just going to do whatever the hell he wants, so that’s just fine. It is unlikely he will come this way again, so we are grateful we got the chance to see him.

Newman at piano

Newman at piano

I never realized just how many songs the man has written about cities and/or states: Baltimore, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Louisiana. And he performed them all. They follow a similar formula, with snarky verses that alternate with hypnotic repetition of said geography’s name. He worked in a wink and a nod to his Hoosier hosts, noodling through “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” at one point looking around the beautiful Palladium and cheekily observing, “What a dump.”

His show was riddled with his caustic takes on religion and politics, government and capitalism. That was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative community, so I’m sure a few spiky letters to the editor will arrive at the Indianapolis Star this week.

Yet, if he had really wanted to drive a stake through the heartland, he should have played one of my personal favorites, his theme “That’ll Do” from Babe: Pig in the City. While originally sung by Peter Gabriel, their voices are rather interchangeable at this point, so I think Newman delivering this subtle ode to kindness and to compassion and, well, to pigs would have been the perfect punctuation mark on his performance in factory farming Indiana (sad example here). We thought about shouting the title “That’ll Do” (like some rowdy concert-goers shouted “Free Bird” when I saw Tracy Chapman at the Wabash College Chapel years ago), but then we realized he might misunderstand, think we were telling him he was done for the evening, and then walk off stage.

Newman, ever the iconoclast, also worked in his shots at corporate giant Disney, letting us know in no uncertain terms, that while he has appreciated the opportunity, he hasn’t always been thrilled with the artistic limitations imposed. In a funnier bit, he commented how frustrating it is to score something such as a toy soldier falling into a drawer, adding that there is a good 20 minutes of Toy Story he’s never seen, because that particular section didn’t require any musical scoring. He then launched into a fine rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” one of the sharpest musical moments of the evening. Again, I wouldn’t have minded hearing a slightly more obscure tune from the Toy Story saga, the beautiful and heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” (originally sung by Sarah McLachlan and written by Newman).

I guess it is a sign that I am more of a fan than I knew, having left the show enjoying what I heard but wishing for more songs than time had allowed.

Feinstein and Sexton

Feinstein and Sexton

As a final note, we realized after the show was over, that we had been seated in a box next to Michael Feinstein and his family and some potentially uber-wealthy donors. No doubt we probably would have been a bit better behaved had we known this – not putting our feet on the backs of chairs, nor taking flash photos, nor snapping our chewing gum. We are so classy. Regardless, after he finished schmoozing Daddy Warbucks and Co., Feinstein was kind and gracious enough to take a photo with us and to chat for a bit, though I suspect the cleaning crew was dispatched to our vacated box immediately.

Do take a moment to check out Feinstein’s Foundation and the great work they’re doing there, and if you feel like sending a donation to preserve our musical history and keep art alive, I’m sure it would be appreciated. If you find yourself in Indianapolis, definitely stop by for a visit or show. It’s worth it!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

No yellow-and-black briefcases full of money nor aspiring warblers from Topeka: Howie Mandel live at Caesars Windsor

Howie MandelThe other day over lunch with my pal Neil Simon (the consultant, not the playwright) I started to elaborate on a point I made earlier (apropos of nothing) on a blog entry about Gone With The Wind, namely that I love comedians who can mix bawdiness with self-deprecation, raunch with childlike whimsy, spiteful take-down with satiric absurdity. If a comedian is just mean or arrogant or gross for the sake of achieving some false sense of superiority over his or her audience, I ain’t havin’ it.

For me, Richard Pryor wins out every day over Eddie Murphy. Kathy Griffin or Joan Rivers get the prize over Lisa Lampanelli or Sarah Silverman. I’d rather spend an afternoon with Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black, or Whoopi Goldberg than Dane Cook, Kevin Hart, or Bill Maher (maybe). The list goes on.

(Maher may be the exception that proves the rule for me as his egomania, misogyny, and dyspepsia often serve as a brilliant counterpoint to the political zingers he is attempting to land…but he still gives me a headache.)

Howie MandelI’d never really given much thought to how I feel about Howie Mandel, though. Like Gallagher or Carrot Top, he made my junior high self laugh with abandon over the funny voices and the latex gloves on his head, the germaphobia and the OCD. I never watched St. Elsewhere – he may have been genius there. I just don’t know. I adored his charming children’s show Bobby’s World in the 90s, and it always amused me greatly that his helium-voiced alter ego also doubled as the vocalizations for Gizmo in Gremlins and Skeeter on Muppet Babies.

As I got older, Mandel just seemed to disappear into the margins. I may have unfairly lumped him into the buffoonish band of novelty comics, or maybe he just became complacent, hosting game shows (Deal or No Deal) and talent contests (America’s Got Talent) and shaving his head and growing silly-looking “soul patches” on his chin.

How wrong I was.

Howie MandelLast night, we had the pleasure of taking in his stand-up routine at Caesars Windsor in their much-vaunted Colosseum room. (Let me say, though, that the room does not live up to the marketing hype, resembling a giant pole barn and with an entrance/egress system that functions more like a giant game of Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap than an efficient/pleasant welcome/farewell to the audience. It is a claustrophobe’s and a process engineer’s nightmare.)

Regardless, Mandel presented a remarkable show, reminding, at least this viewer, what made Mandel great in the first place. His routine on Saturday night was a mix of prepared and improvised material, free-wheeling in its delivery and free-ranging in its topics. With a boyish pluck, Mandel brought down the house, riffing on audience members’ foibles and any information they recklessly volunteered. His silliest and funniest moments came at the expense of two security guards downstage who seemed more interested in staring at each other than in protecting the funnyman. Yet, Mandel was never mean nor cruel; he was ever-playful and as hard on his own eccentricities as those of the targeted audience members.

Howie MandelMandel was plenty “blue” in his material, but it never offended as he comes across more as a little kid laughing at his own farts than a skeezy old man who bullies those around him with dirty jokes. You know the type I mean, right? You’ve seen such pricks (sorry for the colorful euphemism) at your high school reunions or at family picnics? “Hey, you, listen to something really filthy here. Does it make you uncomfortable? Yeah? Good! I win!” Mandel’s not like that at all, thank goodness.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for his tone-deaf opening act Shuli Egar, a correspondent from The Howard Stern Show, who came off as a hateful little creep and who seems to think life is there for his ridicule and contempt. There were pockets of laughter during his set, but mostly it was a pretty flat affair that could be best described as Don Rickles/Cheech & Chong/Ray Romano as re-written by Attila the Hun. My advice to him? Ditch the hipster glasses that make him look like mean bird, make fun of himself more, and let us see his tortured inner life that makes him so despise his outer one. THAT would be interesting. (Let me add – Stern I’ve always loved. See rationale in opening paragraphs above. This toadie of Stern’s? Not so much.)

Howie MandelBack to Mandel. He shared with the audience that earlier on Saturday he had become a grandfather for the first time, and, rather than coming across as cloying or preachy (a la someone like Bill Cosby), he used said news in clever and irreverent ways to introduce such tried and true Mandellian topics as … his omnipresent fear of germs; the torture of being on the road 24/7; his love for his wife as expressed by torturing her daily with public tomfoolery; the highs and lows of being part of nationally beloved reality shows on the Peacock Network (En…BEEEE….Ceee!); and so on.

Seeing Howie Mandel live is an interesting phenomenon. A forgotten comic (at least to me) becomes vital, vibrant, possibly even essential in that setting. The electricity of his intelligence and his wit, the kindness in his heart, and the acerbic view he projects toward this ridiculous planet make him very winning, indeed. I’m sure the TV shows and the merchandise and the appearances rake in the moolah, but here’s hoping the third act of Mandel’s storied career gets him back on stage, alone and live, with no yellow-and-black briefcases full of money nor aspiring warblers from Topeka.

Detroit always looks best from ... Canada?

Detroit always looks best from … Canada?

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.