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Review: 'Chicago Legends' light up Auditorium stage

Howard Reich

10:17 AM CDT, August 25, 2013

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Several years ago, the Auditorium Theatre hit on an unusual idea: Seat the audience on the stage with the performers, the lights of the house serving as a glittering backdrop.

The "On Stage With …" series caught on but hit a new high point over the weekend, and not only because the event was sold out for the first time. More important, several widely admired performers converged for the occasion, titled "On Stage With … Chicago Music Legends."

Considering that singer-guitarist Frank D'Rone, singer-pianist Judy Roberts and cabaret performer Denise Tomasello shared the bill, the "Chicago Music Legends" title was justified, for each artist has been deeply identified with this city for decades. True, Roberts now lives in Arizona, but she returns every summer for several weeks of performances and remains a symbol of Chicago jazz wherever she travels. That the cast also included Roberts' husband, Chicago saxophonist Greg Fishman, and pianist Beckie Menzie, a key figure in Chicago cabaret, only underscored the hometown nature of the evening.

On paper, at least, the juxtaposition of these names may have seemed a bit odd, if only because D'Rone, Roberts and Fishman are hard-core jazz artists, while Tomasello draws wholly on cabaret traditions. But because the evening was divided into distinct halves, no musical compromises were forced upon anyone.

During the past couple of months, Roberts has played uncounted rooms across the Chicago area but hasn't sounded quite the way she did on Saturday evening. For starters, she was playing a Steinway grand of a caliber rarely encountered in jazz clubs, where pianos get beaten into submission through years of overuse.

This time, listeners could hear the intricacies of Roberts' keyboard voicings, the beauty of her touch, the complexities of her harmonies. Everything resonated beautifully, the stage of the Auditorium proving as acoustically inviting as the larger house itself always does. Surely that's why Roberts played so much piano on this night – she couldn't help herself.

In George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland," Roberts' extended, ultra-sophisticated chords warmly supported her silvery vocals, while Fishman's solos on tenor saxophone reminded listeners of his prowess as improviser. When the couple offered bristling two- and three-part counterpoint, you understood anew the pleasures of hearing them outside the din of a club or restaurant setting.

Roberts was a close friend of pianist Marian McPartland, who died last Tuesday at age 95, so Roberts naturally paid tribute to her mentor by playing one of McPartland's best known tunes, "Twilight World." Under Roberts' fingertips, the piece traveled to remote harmonic regions that surely would have pleased McPartland, who always savored new ideas in jazz.

D'Rone revels in a musical language honed by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Nat "King" Cole, all of whom publicly stated their admiration for him. The reasons were plain to hear on this evening, for at 81 D'Rone still can stretch a phrase like taffy, swing a rhythm with ferocity and cut quickly to the inner meaning of a ballad.

Many listeners identify "When Joanna Loved Me" with Bennett, but D'Rone crafted a distinctive reading, his reedy vocal quality and long, sustained lines bringing forth the bittersweet flavor of the lyric. In "Yesterday I Heard the Rain" he expressed deep, dark currents of romantic loss.

And when D'Rone picked up his guitar, he reiterated his versatility as jazz artist, especially in "Make Someone Happy," from his illuminating album "Double Exposure." The singer-guitarist has faced health challenges in recent years, but he will not allow them to silence him. Bravo.

Singer Tomasello closed the evening, and though her emotionally extravagant cabaret show represented a gear shift from the jazz opening, she offered precisely the persona that Chicagoans have come to associate with her. As ever, Tomasello combined gutsy performance with high camp, serving up soliloquies of self-congratulation – such as "I'm the Greatest Star" from "Funny Girl" – with a dash of self satire.

You had to chuckle at the local references she and lyricist Bob Moreen wrote into Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," but it was the grit of the performance that mattered most. Her rendition of Charles Aznavour's "Yesterday When I Was Young" was a bit overwrought for at least one listener's tastes, but surely no one does over-the-top as exuberantly as Tomasello.

Pianist Menzie nimbly led a trio that tried to give Tomasello some musical ballast. But who could resist a singer who asks her 99-year-old uncle to stand up in the audience and take a bow, then wends her way into the crowd – in mid-song – to kiss each of her relatives?

You had to be there.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich