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SOUND OFF: Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett's CHEEK TO CHEEK: LIVE! Is A Big Wet Kiss


Today we are shining a special solo spotlight on this weekend's hotly anticipated PBS presentation of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett's CHEEK TO CHEEK: LIVE! Miss the special? Click here to watch online.

I Can't Give You Anything But Love

"Look at all the little jazz babies in the first row," Lady Gaga gleefully shares with the audience before launching into a sensitive and delicate rendition of the title song from this year's unexpected hit studio album collaboration with music icon Tony Bennett of the same name, "Cheek To Cheek". One of the foremost features making CHEEK TO CHEEK: LIVE! such a sensational thrill beyond even that of the album it represents is to witness the chance that it allows for Lady Gaga to imbue the live event with her trademark theatrical tendencies - and she does just that, with a stream of stylish costumes and fabulous hairstyles, though never overwhelming the proceedings with any of it. While this may not be traditional PBS fare in general to begin with given her controversial reputation in the music industry and beyond for wild stage shows and general button-pushing mise en scene, Gaga pays considerable credence to the idea of less is more here - appreciably so. After all, the opportunity to perform alongside a modern living legend such as Bennett is a rare one and Gaga pays him the respect that he has rightly earned while still displaying some of the outre spunk and outlandish allure that remains her bread and butter - well, that and great vocals, that is. And, great vocals these are - maybe even more impressive than the sumptuously produced studio album itself.

Beginning in a cyanic-hued silhouette behind a scrim, an elegantly Egyptian-outfitted Gaga takes the stage alongside a natty, tuxedo-clad Bennett to step in front of the impressive jazz orchestra assembled, arms wrapped around each other, at the start of the hour-long PBS special. The intimacy, excitement and masterful musical performance merely starts there - and gets better and better as it goes along. An unadorned entrance is the ideal opener to a classic duets show such as this and the pair kick it all off with a rollicking "Anything Goes" before launching into the winsome "Cheek To Cheek", both songs highlighted by lilting and lovingly crafted arrangements and orchestrations. Familiar MOULIN ROUGE! opener and Jazz Age standard "Nature Boy" follows suit. The pair split up for two solo selections after that, with Bennett's moody and mournful "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?" showing strong evidence for his surprisingly strong vocal skills at nearly 90 - no small feat, especially with a tricky melody and unusual build as this song surely contains, particularly the ending. The audience rightly rises to their feet to applaud the massive final note - thusly affording Bennett his well-earned due. The vocal fireworks increase even further with the next number, featuring Gaga in a red leather pantsuit and huge Diana Ross-esque Afro covering the Sonny Bono slow-burner "Bang Bang" with explosive results. A powerhouse, especially that epic diva-tastic ending! Terrific times two.

Gaga and Bennett re-team for the next selection, the recognizable Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields standard "Firefly". Pleasingly, prior to this moment and throughout the show Gaga and Bennett share some sweet and sexy asides, which are always extremely flirtatious, tasteful and fun, making the entire affair an outright pleasure to view. Unquestionably, this whole CHEEK TO CHEEK experiment is a unique entry on the resumes of both artists and the astounding way it works - and it all works; and works like gangbusters - is almost confounding, yet somehow just right. At least that is how one feels after fully taking it all in - and during, as well, actually. After all, Gaga herself has shared that Great American Songbook standard "Lush Life" and her participation in a choral performance of it while still in school is an elemental ingredient in her choosing to pursue a career in show business, thereby paying as much respect to the jazz greats as the iconic rock, pop and theatre acts that inform her pop superstar persona - Freddie Mercury, Liza Minnelli, Cher and many more included. Speaking of Cher, even she got a kick out of Gaga's "Bang Bang" cover, as a recent Twitter exchange reflects. At the end of the day, talent is talent - and good is good. As for Bennett, his reputation precedes him - he is as good as it gets. The combination? Brilliant.

Another song, another costume change, another showstopper - Gaga trades in crimson leather for black lace and matching spiky wig for a funky and full-bodied "I Won't Dance" accompanied by several showgirls. Gaga dons a wizard-sleeved metallic gown for the next number, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", which turns out to be one of the best songs of the night - blasted to the rafters by Gaga, then the band, then main man Bennett himself bringing it all home. The witty reworking of the lyrics from "Baby" to "Lady" for Gaga are particularly delightful in Bennett's assured, adoring delivery. Clearly, Bennett is smitten with the diva - and, considering she gives a performance this sophisticated and entertaining with material this unexpected, keeping up with the jazz legend every step of the way (not to mention the sensational Brian Newman quartet and the jazz orchestra itself) is a surefire testament to her titanic talents. "Lush Life", which comes next, confirms these facts even further - this music lives in Gaga's soul, just as it does in Bennett's, and the pairing of the two in a sleek and stylish presentation such as what PBS has afforded CHEEK TO CHEEK: LIVE! along with their considerable gifts as performers makes for a true treat for fans old and new. "Oh, yes, I was wrong again," Gaga sings in "Lush Life" - and so it must also go for those naysayers among us who doubted that an admittedly potentially disastrous match-up such as Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett singing jazz classics could have been. Instead, it's a stroke of genius - the idea, the album and now this excellently captured live performance.

After that, Bennett croons the moving "Sophisticated Lady" while Gaga performs an interpretive dance behind a scrim, moonlight and stars offering the sole illumination besides two dim spotlights, accentuating the sensitive, sad qualities of the song. Immediately increasing the tempo and pumping some energy into the proceedings following that, Gaga sports a royal blue and diamond ensemble for the romantic "Let's Face The Music And Dance", ending the upbeat earworm on some choice jazz notes. Another showpiece, another costume - Gaga trades in blue for creamy SILK with a decadently bejeweled headdress for the, well, just beautiful "But Beautiful". It's a standout on the album and an outright gorgeous rendering here in this live concert presentation, with spine-tingling harmonies and a spectacular arrangement, too. One may have assumed Gaga in particular would have taken the riffing and vocal gymnastics to questionable heights in a concert like this, yet the pervasive sense of dignity and class informs all. Nothing is ever too much or too little - it is all just right.

The duo becomes a group showstopper for the next musical moment, the finale, with world renowned jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and a bevy of busty showgirls adding punch and pizzazz to "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)". Although the evening could have easily felt forced and insincere - both live in the NYC concert venue a few months back when this was recorded as well as for the viewers happening to take in CHEEK TO CHEEK: LIVE! this weekend on PBS - the exact opposite is the feeling we are left with after having viewed the show: it is overflowing with love. Love for music, love for performing, love for jazz, love for the audience and love for each other - CHEEK TO CHEEK: LIVE! is a love-fest all too easy to adore and even easier to want to revisit time and time again. A new classic. Let's hope next year's follow-up, a recently confirmed Cole Porter tribute album, will be just as good - or, if it is even possible, even better; as will be the PBS special that hopefully accompanies it.

Exhibiting a consistently convivial, familiar rapport that performing teams sharing the stage and the recording studio several years and even decades together would undeniably envy, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett do their exemplary recent recording collaboration one better with this week's stupendous PBS special. Yes, indeed, CHEEK TO CHEEK: LIVE! is one big, wet, wonderful kiss - with all of us in the audience lucky enough to view it truly making out.

View the complete PBS presentation of Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett's CHEEK TO CHEEK: LIVE! below.

Photo Credits: PBS

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)