Tom Strini

Tony Bennett’s voice, unheard, looms over the Rep’s “I Left My Heart”

At the Stackner Cabaret, three good tenors still searching for just the right tone in this Milwaukee Rep tribute to Tony Bennett.

By - Aug 26th, 2013 04:48 pm
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L-R: Eric Jon Mahlum, Richard Carsey, Rob Tucker, Andrew McMath. Photos courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Three good, well-trained, likable singers with strong stage presence covering classic American songs in a cabaret setting — how could it miss?

It turned out hit-and-miss Sunday evening, as  I Left My Heart: A Tribute to the Music of Tony Bennett opened at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. The problems with this show, which dates to 2005, do not lie in anything that tenors Eric Jon Mahlum, Andrew McMath and Rob Tucker, and onstage pianist Richard Carsey, did or didn’t do. The problem is that they did it all in the looming shadow of Tony Bennett.

I Left My Heart brought to mind this quotation from composer Elliott Carter, on his study of Brahms at Harvard: “In the end you realized how good Brahms is and how bad you are.”

The creative team of David Grapes and Todd Olson, who also directed, would have done better to call the show Three Guys Singing their Favorite Songs and left Bennett out of it. His name and the photo portraits that adorn the Stackner constantly remind us of the remoteness of the evening’s singing from Bennett’s. (A Tribute to the Music of Robert Goulet would have been a more accurate title, in terms of vocal style, but the Stackner would have been empty instead of full Sunday.) True, these are songs Tony sang and continues to sing, but everyone else sang them, too.

Mahlum, McMath and Tucker are musical theater singers, not jazz singers. You can’t blame them for that, and they try gamely to improvise or displace the rhythm now and then, which only serves to remind us of how good Bennett is and how bad they are at this.

McMath gets an A for effort and ambition — he tried the hardest and most frequently and fell the shortest in the jazz department. Mahlum mostly let discretion be the better part of valor and stayed within his comfort zone. Tucker, with his soulful feel for bending notes and sure placement of rhythm, fared the best with jazz style, expressed most fully in Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” Generally, Vince di Mura’s arrangements left them little room for creative flights, and Carsey, too, had to stick to the script. (I wish the Rep had popped for a bass player, to free Carsey’s left hand of an almost constant walking bass.) Neither singers nor pianist had the space to develop a song over time in conjunction with instrumental solos, as Bennett does in concert.

Keep in mind that this transpired on opening night and the show runs through Oct. 8. These singers might very well settle into the material and the style and learn to draw you in, as lounge singers do, and not just bowl you over in the way of musical theater.

They were most at home with a set of early Bennett hits, from a period when he specialized in an Italianate, operatic sort of pop crooning. Tucker was terrific with “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” likewise with Mahlum on “Because of You” and McMath on “Stranger in Paradise.”

Di Mura crafted some nifty vocal arrangments, notably combining the three songs above into a dazzling quod libet and weaving vocal harmonies through a set of songs by Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, Arlen, Mercer and Ellington. The arranger often assigned the highter, trickier parts of extended jazz chords — the major sevenths, the ninths and augmented 11ths — to the voices. These aren’t easy to find, but the singers hit them confidently and tuned them well, with thrilling results.

The blooms of vocal harmony at the end of solo numbers were the most consistently impressive and exciting parts of this show. They have nothing to do with Tony Bennett, but neither does this show beyond the occasional anecdote about his life. It’s just three guys singing, and singing well in their own way. That should be enough.

For tickets and a full schedule of performances, visit the Milwaukee Rep’s website.

Categories: Music, Rock, Theater

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