Times Staff Writer

To a crowd of 20,000 at an outdoor concert Thursday night at UC Irvine, Tony Bennett could do no wrong.

They cheered when Bennett started his 75-minute performance on the Aldrich Park stage with the evening's first Gershwin standard, a zestful version of " 'S Wonderful."

They whooped and hollered when Bennett took off--tempos flying--with "Just In Time," "The Man I Love" and "From This Moment On."

They sighed when Bennett--inevitably--launched into his gold-record signature ballads, "Because of You" from the '50s and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" from the '60s.

For Bennett, an artful master of classic pop ballads, this kind of rousing reception in the '80s must be sweetly ironic. His type of oldie-but-goodies repertoire, which he has refused to abandon despite his long exile from the best-selling charts, is enjoying a respectful revival these days.

And no one handles the likes of Kern, Porter, Rodgers, Berlin, Arlen and Gershwin with greater technical authority or more vocal agility than Bennett.

His appearance at UC Irvine--the third in a free "Concert Under the Stars" series sponsored this summer by the Irvine Co.--found Bennett in grand fettle. (This is his second stint in Orange County. His first was at the Knott's Good Time Theatre in early 1983.)

You might think that after three decades of working clubs, theaters and arenas, Bennett's act could have become too pat. But his UC Irvine concert was hardly routine.

Paced by the excellent Ralph Sharon Trio, his regular backup combo, Bennett fired off two dozen numbers with hardly a pause for on-stage patter.

Such small talk would have been superfluous.

Bennett was there to sing, and his voice sounded as assured as ever, his styling quintessential Tony: the supreme casualness; the mercurial shifts in beat and volume; the impeccably enunciated lyrics; the lingering, seamless melodic line. Sometimes he did indulge in his fondness for the rather showy, noisy "big finishes"--fitting enough for "Who Can I Turn To" or "Stranger In Paradise," but closer to overkill when done to the gently lyrical "My Funny Valentine."

But largely, he eschewed vocal histrionics. He tossed off some of the most revered, usually slow-tempo standards--such as "Yesterdays" and "As Time Goes By"--with a finger-snapping vibrance and a free-wheeling nonchalance.

And he seemed to have the best time of all romping through "They All Laughed," "I Wish I Were In Love Again" and "They'll Be Some Changes Made" with a swinging, infectious joyousness.

In this up-tempo mode especially, the Ralph Sharon Trio--pianist Sharon, drummer Joe LaBarbera, bass player Paul Langosch--were exceptionally effective. (The Manny Harmon string orchestra, a pickup ensemble, provided additional backing in the program's second half. They played soothingly enough, but their presence was an unnecessary and distracting embellishment.)

Although Bennett's vocals may lack a riveting intensity and depth, he is still immensely listenable--a stylist with immaculate phrasing, unerring control and a repertoire that defies fads. At 58, he is still a class act.

(Statistical footnote: The estimated turnout of 20,000, comprising rock-era students as well as middle-aged Bennett groupies, is the best yet in the "Concert Under the Stars" program. Irvine Co. organizers said the Buddy Rich and Les Brown concerts last month drew in the 14,000-17,000 range. The remaining attractions this month are Judy Collins, Helen O'Connell and the Harry James Orchestra.)

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