In his current engagement at the Goodman Studio Theatre (which is not entirely sold-out despite reports), Mandy Patinkin redefines the musical-theater concert from the moment he walks onstage. Dressed in black slacks, a loose-fitting coral-colored T-shirt, and gym shoes, he pops out from the wings carrying two pots of flowers with which to decorate a stage that is bare except for a couple of ladders, a standing lamp with a naked light bulb, and a man sitting at the piano. Adjusting to the audience–and allowing them to adjust to his decidedly unorthodox manner–Patinkin stands still and begins to sing: “When the red, red robin comes bob-, bob-, bobbin’ along.” His voice is perfectly focused and pitched but weirdly bland, almost deadpan, as if he can’t believe the optimistic tune he’s mouthing. Yet he wants to believe it; that’s why he chose it.

Over the next two intermissionless hours of singing, story telling, and occasional dancing, Patinkin continues this unsettling blend of show-biz ballsiness and quirky, emotionally fragile introspection. This isn’t the kind of show we’ve come to expect from singing stars; this is something new, the concert as performance art. And–more than his brilliant starring performances on Broadway in Evita and Sunday in the Park With George–it establishes Patinkin as the most innovative and dynamic musical-theater singer since Barbra Streisand back when she was good.

The comparison is worth exploring. With her offbeat looks, unrestrained emotionalism, off-kilter comic sensibility, and unusual insights into the subtext of old standards, the young Streisand redefined the concept of a musical-comedy leading lady. She wasn’t beautiful and wasn’t trying to be; she didn’t sing pretty, and she refused to pander to listeners’ expectations. (Boy, has she changed!) Patinkin has similarly discarded the conventional image of a musical-comedy leading man. Though he projects an unassailable manliness, he eschews the macho swagger, whether of the ruggedly folksy or coolly urbane variety, that traditionally defines masculinity in musical theater.

Instead, he’s interested in characterization–the more of it the better. In Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Dress Casual (which he has performed on Broadway), Patinkin uses classic and contemporary show tunes as dramatic monologues, slipping in and out of dozens of roles with the impeccable technique and vivid imagination that mark the true artist. In “And the Band Played On,” he’s a sentimental old man recalling his first dance with a certain girl with a strawberry curl. In the operatic “Soliloquy,” from Carousel, he’s a young jock talking to his buddies in the gym about the baby his wife’s going to have, running through some chin-ups and a few boxing steps while speculating on the responsibilities of fatherhood. In “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” he’s a homeless man looking for a handout, explaining his situation (“Once I built a railroad . . .”) to passersby, finally erupting in a primal howl of need.

And in a virtuosic medley from Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, he’s the perfect Joey Evans–two-bit hustler, would-be musician, and sleazoid womanizer. He seethes with defensive anger as he confesses “I could never spell” before launching into a lyrical chorus of “I Could Write a Book,” designed to win the favors of a skeptical lady; moves with snaky grace in a silent tap dance to the strains of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”; and spits out a defiant assertion of his voluntary isolation in “Talking to My Pal,” a seldom-heard song cut from the 1940 show. (The songs in this sequence are tied together with dialogue from Robert Falls’s script for his revised revival of the John O’Hara-inspired show at the Goodman three years ago; if Patinkin and Falls are thinking of bringing Pal Joey to Broadway, it should be a sensation.)

A common theme runs through this and a great deal more material: the clash between nostalgic sentiment, represented in the beloved old songs, and a cynical lack of confidence in the present. I don’t know how autobiographical this theme is for Patinkin, but he certainly seems to draw heavily on his own experience; that may be especially true in the Goodman show, which marks a homecoming for the Tony Award-winning Broadway and movie star who got his start playing Billy Bigelow in a teen production of Carousel at a Jewish community center on Chicago’s south side. Sometimes overtly and sometimes by implication, Patinkin makes reference to his own life–as a son, as a father, as a Jew, as a Chicagoan, as a performer, and as a young man starting to deal with mortality as he copes with the deaths of loved ones. With Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy,” he pays tribute to a close friend who died of AIDS; with Stephen Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone” (from Into the Woods), he speaks to his child while remembering his own childhood (“People make mistakes, fathers, mothers . . .”). Sondheim proves an especially important source of material–which makes sense, since the songwriter’s obsessive, ironic explorations of a seemingly rosy past as a means of understanding current conditions dovetails with Patinkin’s own concerns. The Andrews Sisters spoof “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (from Sondheim’s Company) here becomes a terrifying portrait of neurotic love; “Buddy’s Blues” (from Follies) uses vaudeville antics to depict the pain of a marriage gone sour.

Add to the list a richly comic rendition of the mock-Russian patter song “Tschaikowsky,” which starts slower and ends faster than Danny Kaye, the tune’s original singer, could ever have pulled off; a hauntingly dreamy “Over the Rainbow”; a rendition of Kander and Ebb’s “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” that turns into the most bizarre audience-participation gag I’ve ever seen; a “Happy Medley” that includes “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Swanee”; and a wistful love song by Thom Bishop, “Mr. Arthur’s Place,” that Patinkin has released as a single. In every song Patinkin displays a voice of extraordinary range and resonance, from a throbbing deep bass to an unearthly but firmly supported falsetto, superb musical taste (shared by the splendid and sensitive accompanist, Paul Ford), and a remarkable physical grace that makes even his stillest moments glow with presence and propels his efforts at mime and dance to sublime heights. But it’s Patinkin’s imagination that makes him such a captivating concert artist. Dress casual, the title says; in the hands of this young master of his art, casual dress and taken-for-granted songs are transformed into a world of limitless surprise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Cunningham.