Tony Bennett, the still vibrant nonagenarian who in recent years has accrued an extra bit of pop culture “cred” by teaming up in performances and recordings with one Lady Gaga, grew up as Anthony Dominick Benedetto in an Italian-American family in Queens, New York.
‘I LEFT MY HEART: A SALUTE TO THE MUSIC OF TONY BENNETT’ Recommended When: Through March 5 Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Tickets: $30 – $65 Info: www.MercuryTheaterChicago Run time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
It was Bob Hope who gave him his more “American” name during a road tour. It was a slew of immigrants, or the first generation kids-of-immigrants (from the Gershwins to Irving Berlin and Harry Warren) who, along with such jazz masters as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie, supplied the contents of the enduring Great American Songbook. And that songbook, along with a persistent but subtle sense of swing, has been Bennett’s stock-in-trade for decades.
It is both those roots and that distinctive style that are celebrated in “I Left My Heart,” the song-filled revue directed and choreographed by Kevin Bellie that is now at Mercury Theater Chicago. Subtitled “A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett,” it features three fine musical theater performers — Evan Tyrone Martin, Robert Hunt and Jim DeSelm — backed by a powerhouse onstage band led by music director/pianist Linda Madonia, with Ryan Hobbs on rousing trumpet, Dan Kristin on bass and Lindsay Williams on percussion.
With blissfully little chit-chat but lots of mood shifts, the revue, created by David Grapes and Todd Olson (and first produced in Florida in 2005), features almost three dozen numbers, with arrangements by Vince di Mura that are often creative, if sometimes trying a bit too hard for novelty. As we are told, Bennett, “a singer in love with singing,” abided by the advice of his idol and champion, Frank Sinatra, who said “just sing the good songs” and you’ve got it made. He did just that, with simplicity and directness of interpretation the keys to his success.
Bennett unquestionably knew how to pick the classics. And along with much else, this show is a vivid reminder of the long, golden age of popular song that preceded the arrival of rock and roll — the advent of which threw Bennett for a loop in the 1960s, even if he prevailed by being true to himself in the long run. From the opening number, Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” that sets the tuxedo jack-clad trio of singers tapping, to the plaintive finale — “Make Someone Happy,” by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne — the show is a lexicon of songs alternately romantic, celebratory, dreamy, and, for the most part, optimistic, even if many were penned during the Great Depression. Together they are emblematic of what really makes America great.
Martin, fresh from his fine portrayal of King Triton in the Paramount Theatre’s hit production of “The Little Mermaid,” (and, to my mind, a natural candidate for a role in “Hamilton”), brings a wonderfully charismatic quality to everything he does. Here he playfully flirts with the audience in Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” captures the zany spirit of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” taps into the moodiness and hurt of the Duke Ellington-Irving Mills gem, “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” and moves through the haunting quality of “Street of Dreams” by Samuel Lewis and Victor Popular Young.
DeSelm gets things going in the anthemic “Lullaby of Broadway” by Al Durbin and Harry Warren, and then moves on to the Arlen-Mercer classic, “That Old Black Magic,” the theme from the film “Love Story,” by Carl Sigman and Francis Lai, and the lyrical “You Must Believe in Spring” by Hollywood’s Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and others. And Hunt, who has a bit of the operatic tenor in his voice, performs winning renditions of everything from Berlin’s seductive “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to “The Days of Wine and Roses,” the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer classic.
To their credit, none of the singers try to imitate Bennett, but rather sing in the spirit of the man. The revue lacks the sort of little touches of magic that invariably mark the musical revues staged by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, and a bit of girl power in the cast might have upped the ante. But there are some enjoyable anecdotes scattered among the songs, and the show very ably suggests the arc of Bennett’s remarkable career. Who could ask for anything more?
NOTE: The Mercury Theater, the “intimate jewel box” in the heart of the ever-changing Southport Corridor, is in expansion mode. Executive director L. Walter Stearns is turning the adjoining space (formerly home of Cullen’s Bar & Grill), into a flexible environmental/cabaret-style venue with food and drink service. It will be dubbed The Venus, and has a tentative opening date of late spring.