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‘The Knife,’ A Musical Starring Mandy Patinkin, Opens Off-Broadway

March 11, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ Is there anything in the musical theater Mandy Patinkin can’t do?

From Che Guevara in ″Evita″ to Georges Seurat in ″Sunday in the Park with George″ to a down-on-his-luck ex-hoofer in the historic concert version of ″Follies,″ Patinkin brings an intensity and conviction, not to mention that glorious voice, to every role he undertakes.

He needs all three to keep ″The Knife″ on edge. The show, which opened Tuesday at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater, is the strangest, most schizophrenic musical of the season, alternately affecting and affected, haunting and ludicrous, unnerving and reassuring.

Playwright David Hare, who wrote the political drama ″Plenty,″ has fashioned a peculiar, difficult story that is hard to dramatize, much less turn into a pop opera in which almost every bit of dialogue is sung.

Patinkin plays Peter, a chef at a provincial English hotel. Peter suffers from a severe case of ″gender doubt,″ as it’s explained in the show. He’s a man - a married man with three children - who feels he is actually a woman and wants to undergo a sex-change operation.

It’s an unlikely subject for a musical but then people laughed when T.S. Eliot’s cat poems were mentioned as a possibility for song and dance treatment.

The opportunities for conflict in such a show would seem to be innumerable, especially between husband and wife. But in ″The Knife,″ the most interesting battle occurs within the man himself. Composer Nick Bicat and lyricist Tim Rose Price are at their best in portraying Peter’s inner torment. Otherwise the music is lukewarm Lloyd Webber and the lyrics give earnestness a bad name.

Musically, the high point of the show is reached in the first act when Peter tries to explain ″The Shape I’m In,″ an anguished aria about sexual confusion. His concerned listener is Jenny, an airline stewardess he meets at the hotel. The woman is attracted to Peter who, she says, ″sees me in a different light.″

Jenny falls in love with him and helps finance the sex-change operation, knowing that if it succeeds, she will lose Peter for good. After a while, you wish she would. Their fights get progressively less interesting as the evening progresses.

Left behind in all this turmoil is Peter’s morose wife Angela and their three children. The reunion of wife and husband, now a woman named Liz, is something of an anti-climax and the show ends on a safe, gooey note of sentiment when father and his recalcitrant 15-year-old son are reconciled.

There are a few giggles in this basically humorless musical but much of the laughter is unintentional. For sheer goofiness, it would be hard to top the scene where a chorus of doctors, dressed in their surgical greens and dancing to the title tune, prepares Peter for surgery.

Still Patinkin is astonishing and the rest of the cast is game, even if they never even attempt English accents. Patinkin carries on with the assurance of a true believer, even when he is required to dress up in one of costume designer Jane Greenwood’s creations that make him look like a matronly Chicago Bears fullback.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as the stewardess, is a lovely foil for Patinkin and can match him in the voice department. Cass Morgan is saddled with the unsatisfactory role of the wife, a cipher in search of an identity.

Hare makes sure the musical moves. He has staged the show with a minimum of scenery and a maximum of superb lighting designs created by veteran designer Tharon Musser. At least they have a style, which the musical lacks. ″The Knife,″ like its hero, can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be.

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