I don’t think I’m going to surprise anyone by saying that many classic American standards, if not performed with a certain verve and originality, can sound just that – standard. Old. Boring. Done to death.
In fact, it’s one of the most frequent complaints I hear about Tony Bennett and his music, and I think it’s what hit him hard at the dawn of rock – jazzy pop doesn’t have the drama that an electric guitar does, and modern audiences are addicted to drama. In a certain sense, the music itself is no longer enough.
There’s also always a certain risk with tribute shows. What, exactly, are they paying tribute to? The music? The persona? The on-stage presence? The Rep got it just right earlier this year with "One Night With Janis Joplin," a blow-your-hair-back celebration of all three of those very important elements. I was curious to see how their latest tribute, "I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett" would stack up.
First, I have to mention the venue. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been to the Stackner Cabaret, but for some reason this just really struck me last night how lucky we are to have this space. If you ask me, the Stackner Cabaret is the unsung hero of the Milwaukee date night.
Within these close-together walls of exposed concrete masonry, sandwiched comfortably in the darkness between the bar area and the stage, a certain magic happens. Less gimmicky than a dinner theater and so much classier than a bar, the cabaret space evokes an era of culture, gentleness and refinement. You feel like you’re in an old movie.
It was, of course, the perfect spot for this salute to Tony Bennett, whose voice and music also represents that era. The Stackner added a nice touch by placing vintage photos of Bennett on the walls.
The show started off with high energy as Eric Jon Mahlum took the stage to sing "Steppin’ Out With My Baby;" he was soon joined by the other two starring tenors Andrew McMath and Rob Tucker. The three gave a nice, upbeat performance of the Irving Berlin classic as they donned suits and ties and adjusted cuff links. The dressing-up stunt set the tone for the evening: it was going to be a night of old-school glamour.
So here’s the answer to my earlier question: "I Left My Heart" is, as the title implies, a tribute to Tony Bennett’s music. The young performers onstage didn’t try to replicate anything else about 87-year-old Bennett. Instead, it was an evening of appreciation for the style of this unique performer whose career has essentially run laps on so many others. As McMath pointed out, Frank Sinatra gave Bennett his best advice when he said: "Sing the good songs and you can’t go wrong."
The playlist was interspersed with similar quotations from Bennett himself ("My gimmick is that I don’t have a gimmick") and anecdotes about his career (interestingly, he began as a crooner/waiter – probably in a place similar to the Stackner Cabaret). The tenors pointed out that during the run of this production (which ends Oct. 20) Bennett will perform 16 concerts all over the world. That’s pretty impressive.
So was the vocal ability onstage. Like I said, these were young guys, and to try to mimic the seasoned crooner act would have been an attempt that fell flat. Luckily, they didn’t even try – they just let their pipes do the talking. Bennett would have been proud – in "I Left My Heart," the good songs are sung by truly good singers. I can’t say it any better than a fellow audience member I overheard approach Mahlum at the bar after the performance: "Man, those minor chords."
The vocal tapestry the three tenors wove was especially impressive in their performance of "Stranger in Paradise." Other high points of the evening were "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (during which Tucker in particular shone), "Puttin’ on the Ritz" (as the audience began to titter happily to the opening strains, Tucker graciously said, "Yeah, you can sing along" – and they did) and "Fly Me to the Moon," performed with a slowed-down charm by McMath.
The show ended with Bennett’s most requested songs, including "The Music Never Ends," "I’m Just a Lucky So and So," "I Wanna Be Around," "Rags to Riches" and, of course, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." They also shared a nice story about the latter song, which many fans may not know.
I also have to mention the truly spectacular piano playing of Richard Carsey, known to Milwaukee audiences as the former music director of the Skylight Opera Theatre. He was also the music director of this revue and provided accompaniment for each song. He really shone on "Don’t Mean a Thing."
For more information about "I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett," visit milwaukeerep.com.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.