“I don’t follow the latest fashion,” Tony Bennett said of his artistic instincts in a 2010 interview with the Winston-Salem Journal. “I never sing a song that’s badly written. Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and others just created the best songs that had ever been written. These are classics, and finally they’re not being treated as light entertainment. This is classical music.”
The timeless songs Bennett chose to perform, and the charming, classy ebullience he exudes when singing those Duke Ellington jazz numbers, George Gershwin standards and Henry Mancini ballads are celebrated by three talented actor/singers in the thoroughly entertaining “I Left My Heart – a Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia.
It appears that director/choreographer Debra Buonaccorsi decided to have three Tonys channeling in their own way—not impersonating—the legendary Tony Bennett. So there’s the young, enthusiastic Tony (the appealing Chris Rudy), who belts out with precocious authority “The Best is Yet to Come” at the end of the “Early Years Set.” Rudy brings the joy to the show, as witnessed when he sings Harold Arlen and John H. Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic.”
Between tunes, the actors provide a narrative of Bennett’s career highlights. We learn that in his youth Anthony Benedetto worked as a singing waiter (not unlike the waiters who sing at Toby’s), and a few years later he was the opening act at a Greenwich Village nightclub for Pearl Bailey. Bob Hope was in the audience, and later invited Benedetto to join his road tour. Hope also suggested he shorten his name.
Director Buonaccorsi did a great job of keeping the revue short, tight and snappy. That’s probably how Bennett likes it. The first act ran about 35 minutes, and between the singing, dancing, banter and Bennett history, before you know it the lights are up for intermission.
Kevin McAllister gave us cool, swinging, mid-career Tony. Singing “Crazy Rhythm” McAllister, solely accompanied by Tom Harold on the drums, delivered a driving, stirring vocal interaction with the drummer that had the audience moving to the beat.
In addition to Harold, the first-rate band was led by musical director Douglas Lawler on piano, Frank Higgins on Bass and Tony Neenan on trumpet. Staged in the round, with a circular platform in the center of the floor and candles on every table, the theatre became an intimate supper club, and later a hazy, slightly smoke-filled room.
The wonderful Lawrence B. Munsey was perfect as the “elder statesman of jazz” Tony. With his marvelous voice he does justice to Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” Munsey is clearly the solid song and dance man of the trio, and during “Face the Music” he does some snazzy cha-cha moves and smooth pirouettes—complete with a swagger.
Rudy’s, McAllister’s and Munsey’s voices harmonize nicely as they performed “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” The usual lighthearted banter and some modest dance moves carried the trio through several numbers. Act two’s “The Film Set” featured covers of film songs that Bennett recorded. While two overhead screens showed clips of “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Love Story” and “Casablanca” (“As Time Goes By”), the actors performed the hit songs from those films. That bit of staging could have been distracting, but it provided a nice touch—offering a connect-the-dots support for those who weren’t alive when those movies were made.
There are a few performers around today who relish the Gershwin and Porter standards and perform them. But Tony Bennett is one of the few surviving artists who can say they worked with the likes of Count Basie, Art Blakey and Herbie Mann, while singing and reviving those tunes at a time when they were considered dusty relics. I Left My Heart seems to possess a similar mission—reminding those of a certain age, and informing those born after the advent of MTV—of the beauty and wit and enduring power of those American classics.
I Left My Heart—a Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett
By David Grapes and Todd Nelson
Directed by Debra Buonaccorsi
Music Director Douglas Lawler
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia
Reviewed by Carol Chastang
Running time: 80 minutes with one intermission
Through March 6, 2011