Bennett Tunes to Material, Madonna Turns to Spectacle

TONY BENNETT `STEPPIN' OUT ON BROADWAY' At Longacre Theatre.

MADONNA `GIRLIE SHOW' At Madison Square Garden.

TONY BENNETT, who has been overshadowed by Frank Sinatra most of his long career, has succeeded by pure persistence in becoming simply the best American singer working today.

His recent week-long stint at Broadway's Longacre Theatre served as ample proof of this. Timed to celebrate his latest album release, ``Steppin' Out,'' which is devoted to songs popularized by Fred Astaire, the concert demonstrated that Bennett still has it all - voice, phrasing, and timing.

Although a little frayed in the upper register, Bennett's voice is remarkably intact, and his smooth, conversational method of singing (punctuated by precisely timed belts) is perfectly attuned to his material, the selection of which is astute.

Bennett's shows are like a history of American popular music, with generous helpings of Porter, Gershwin, Mercer, Ellington, and others. The concert featured what seemed like dozens of songs, including segments devoted to Sinatra, the subject of his last concept album, and Astaire. Needless to say, he didn't leave out his biggest hits, including ``The Good Life,'' ``Just in Time,'' and the perennial ``I Left My Heart in San Francisco.''

Bennett is also a relaxed, good-natured performer, displaying an affable personality and genuine self-effacement in his song introductions (although he did say that he was ``the Madonna of his day,'' adding that he always kept his clothes on). He is also extremely canny - his trick of shutting off his microphone and singing one song unamplified had the desired rapturous effect.

When Pia Zadora performed recently in a nightclub here, she brought 22 musicians. On Broadway, Bennett performed with only a three-piece jazz trio, led by his longtime arranger, Ralph Sharon, and the music sounded superb. At the show's end, the singer took his bows clasping his musicians' hands. This is a class act.HE critical consensus on Madonna these days is that she has reinvented herself too many times for anyone to care, that she has endeavored to shock us so many times that we cannot be shocked anymore, and that her career has peaked.

That may all be true, but it was hardly in evidence at Madison Square Garden, the first United States stop of her ``Girlie Show'' tour. Madonna's highly theatrical show offered proof that she continues as a major pop icon and a crowd-pleasing entertainer whose fans will indulge her idiosyncrasies. Toward the end of the concert, she even appropriated James Brown's famous ``I Can't Stop'' routine and was finally ``dragged'' offstage.

It's not surprising that ``Girlie Show,'' which played large stadiums in Europe, was slammed by some critics. In an arena, even one as cavernous as Madison Square Garden, the theatrical aspects of the highly choreographed evening can be more readily appreciated.

Madonna used 10 dancers (including two backup singers), and in this extravaganza every move was tightly choreographed - the numerous costume changes made the affair seem like a greatest hits collection of videos.

The show's emphasis was on her ``Erotica'' album, which meant that, although much of the material was relatively unfamiliar, it also hasn't been played into the ground. Each song, from ``Vogue'' to ``Deeper and Deeper'' to ``Express Yourself,'' became an opportunity for a musical minidrama. The evening had a vague circus theme (it was prefaced by the sound system playing ``Tears of a Clown''), and a white-masked clown figure popped up at various times in a somewhat pretentious touch. But there were also simpler moments, such as when the singer sat alone on the stage to perform ``In This Life,'' about her many friends who have died of AIDS. She also took time out from her exertions to vent her feelings about her bad press and to good-naturedly lambaste her dancers.

There was no shortage of lasciviousness, including partial female nudity, but the show's emphasis is more on spectacle than sex.

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