By Ian Rigg
Merucry Theater’s I Left My Heart is a love letter to Tony Bennett. With superb voices and chic production, it’s a terrific tribute to a titan still going strong at 90 years old.
Director Kevin Bellie presides over a powerhouse production. Staged as an intimate cabaret, he’s put together all the pieces for a night to remember. His actors sing, saunter and sizzle with aplomb. His choreography is effortlessly cool. He is a smart director as well as a slick one. In any revue, there are biographical bits and venerating verbiage, but Bellie is careful to keep it conversational, the tone remaining organic. That level of calculated disaffect combined with devil-may-care abandon gives the show a genuine glee.
Mr. Bellie’s team is equally commendable. Julie Mack’s lighting design gives the cabaret its ambient glow, and sets up spotlights that call to mind an iris wipe at the end of an old Hollywood musical. Carl Wahlstrom makes a tidy and tremendous soundscape out of three separate microphones and a classic style standalone. And Rachel Boylan makes sure the gentlemen are dressed to the nines for the occasion, clad in tuxedos of blue, black and crimson, replete with self-tied bow ties. The gents become disheveled by design, rolling up their sleeves and letting loose the sound as well as their collars.
If these men weren’t meant to sing together, then they rose to that semblance of destiny under the deft direction of Musical Director Linda Madonia (who is a dynamite pianist to boot). She’s ensured their vocal blend is smoother than premium Folgers, with airtight harmonies.
A lesser production could’ve languished into hagiography, for it wouldn’t have had these scintillating performances. The performers imbue an emotional currency to the seminal songs. There are plenty of torch songs, and they burn, but a joie de vivre permeates the proceedings too. These cool cats are kin.
Robert Hunt is presented as the chairman of this board, and he lives up to the title. He has a tremendous voice that remains sensitive as well as soaring. With anecdotes about the “natural heir to Sinatra”, Hunt dazzles the crowd with a gleam in his eye and a song in his soul.
Jim DeSelm is a consummate crooner, old made new, with the vocal acrobatics to prove it. Every move comes with its own suavity and swagger. He has quite the set of pipes, proving it with a rendition of “Fly Me To The Moon” completely unaided by microphone.
Evan Tyrone Martin is phenomenal in particular. It’s not difficult to imagine his voice crackling off a victrola. He’s in possession of a cultured voice of crushed velvet, and when he’s not injecting it with a powerful pathos, he’s putting out a scorching passion (no doubt enjoyed by many lucky patrons when he ventures out into the front row).
With a killer 4-piece jazz ensemble made up of Ryan Hobbs’ regal trumpet, Dan Kristin’s stalwart bass, Lindsay Williams’ kinetic percussion and Linda Madonia tickling the ivory keys, every song elicits elation from the audience. One audience member exclaimed, “This is one of my favorite songs of all time.” That’s the kind of ardor inspired by a man who embodies the great American songbook. Tony Bennett’s passion cements his status as a living legend, and Mercury Theater’s I Left My Heart is a stunning salute to him.
The best is yet to come as Mercury Theater of Chicago presents “I Left My Heart” through March 5 at 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.