On Theater: There's plenty of heart in classy Bennett tribute

Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco a half-century ago, but the rest of him is still going strong as he approaches his 85th birthday next month.

The man famously labeled Frank Sinatra's favorite singer isn't in evidence at the Laguna Playhouse, but the music he made famous is there in abundance in the theater's season-opening show, "I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett."

Like the singer himself, this show reeks of class — from the three tuxedoed tenors (they "dress down" to suits and ties for the second act) — to the exceptionally talented four-piece combo behind them and the setting itself, a glorified cocktail lounge elegantly designed by Bruce Goodrich.

Created by David Grapes and Todd Olson, and directed by Grapes, "I Left My Heart" celebrates the extended career of a pop artist who has become relevant for each succeeding generation.

The singers offer snippets of Bennett's career highlights — including how his most famous tune was discovered in the shirt drawer of his hotel room and hurriedly added to his program, since he was in San Francisco at the time. But for the most part, the emphasis is on the songs, and there are plenty of them.

The three crooners — Dan Callaway, Rob Sutton and Danny Gurwin — all possess magnificent voices and each can hold a note till the cows come home. They're superbly backed by musical director-pianist Vince Di Mura, bassist Ernie Nunez, trumpeter Darrel Gardner and drummer Richard "Drew" Hemwall.

Sinatra once advised, "Only sing the good songs," and the tenors comply. Their litany of musical selections covers the honor roll of great composers — George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Henry Mancini, etc.

The early years are celebrated with such modern classics as "Because of You" and "Stranger in Paradise," followed soon afterward by selections from the aforementioned composers billed as a "Tribute to Friends." A rousing version of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing" closes the first act on a stellar note.

Hollywood melodies ("Love Story," "Days of Wine and Roses," "As Time Goes By") launch the second act, setting the stage for two of Bennett's biggest hits, "I Wanna Be Around" and "The Good Life," followed by a golden oldie, "Rags to Riches."

Finally, we get the number the audience has been waiting for, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," and it's well worth the wait as all three tenors combine for a heartfelt rendition. It's showbiz legend that this song was included only as an afterthought in Bennett's San Francisco concert and became his signature.

Bennett has won 15 Grammys, two Emmys and his global record sales have topped 50 million. Laguna Playhouse audiences can see why during this seven-week tribute to a living legend.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.

If You Go

What: "I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. matinees Thursdays and Sundays, and 7:30 p.m. Sundays until Aug. 21

Cost: $35 to $70

Information: (949) 497-2787, ext. 229 or http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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