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NBC's Tony Bennett variety-show special is a 'Classic'

Hal Boedeker
The Orlando Sentinel

Variety used to be the spice of television. When the variety show waned, prime time lost a lot of flavor. For a reminder of the tangy pleasures we have been missing, just sample "Tony Bennett: An American Classic."

This stylish, stirring special is like a wonderful banquet from the heyday of Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin and Andy Williams. NBC lays out the "American Classic" spread at 8 p.m. EST Tuesday.

Rob Marshall, director of Oscar-winning "Chicago," conceived and guided this affectionate tribute to Bennett. Singers from Barbra Streisand to John Legend join Bennett for duets. Actors from Robert De Niro to John Travolta salute Bennett in words. This fast-moving hour depicts crucial periods in the long, impressive career of Bennett, who turned 80 this year.

Like the old variety programs, "An American Classic" is a mixed bag. But the choice moments outnumber the perfunctory or misguided ones. The renditions, which range from lovely to rousing, should transfix fans of Bennett and classic songs.

What are the high points? Debate among yourselves. I'll pick three:

_Bennett and k.d. lang perform a moving version of "Because of You," a crucial Bennett hit. He and lang sing with obvious admiration for each other, which enhances the segment. Marshall sets the scene in a recording studio, where trumpeter Chris Botti adds his soaring sound.

_Stevie Wonder joins Bennett on "For Once in My Life," and the two singers push each other to invigorating heights. The backdrop is a theater with an orchestra, and Wonder contributes a harmonica solo. Bennett ends the duet by rightly calling his colleague "Stevie Wonderful."

_Christina Aguilera celebrates Bennett's appeal to the MTV generation by joining him for a splashy rendition of "Steppin' Out." Marshall's use of sultry, strutting dancers recalls Bob Fosse's "Cabaret." Aguilera slinks through the number with Jean Harlow-like sexiness. Vocally, Aguilera and Bennett make a fun, formidable team.

Showman Marshall repeatedly displays his versatility. He opens the special simply and lovingly, with Streisand joining Bennett on a stage for "Smile." When you have two of the world's greatest singers, Marshall realizes, you don't need a lot of tricks.

The special ends, thrillingly, with Bennett alone on his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

The testimonials bolster the special's star power, even though those segments feel truncated and underdeveloped. Helping trace Bennett's career are Travolta, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bruce Willis.

Near the end, Oscar-winner De Niro repeats the highest praise Bennett ever received. "For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business," Frank Sinatra told Life magazine in 1965. The Chairman of the Board's approval made the public pay attention.

Through the years, Bennett has continued to earn that praise. Despite his age, his voice remains an incredible instrument. He has stayed true to his classy style while reaching younger fans.

Marshall plays up Bennett's timeless appeal in other segments. In a rousing scene reminiscent of "Chicago," R&B singer Legend joins Bennett on "Sing, You Sinners" in a jazz-club setting. Marshall salutes Bennett's Las Vegas career with dancing girls and two duets. First, there's a ragged one with a playful Elton John. Then, there's a smoother one with Michael Buble, who seems a likelier candidate for the Boy Scouts than the Rat Pack.

Still another scene evokes television variety from the 1960s. Diana Krall and Bennett roll merrily through "The Best Is Yet to Come," accompanied by dancers who could have wandered in from "The Dean Martin Show." It's a kitschy setup, one that gives way to a serious version of "The Shadow of Your Smile" by Bennett and Latin artist Juanes.

Variety still has a place on television, from "American Idol" to "Dancing With the Stars" to awards shows. But as the Bennett special illustrates, when the professionals show up - and don't expect a prize - something wonderful can happen. Despite unevenness, "Tony Bennett: An American Classic" is an exhilarating event. We could use more like it.

___

TONY BENNETT: AN AMERICAN CLASSIC

Cast: Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Christina Aguilera, Diana Krall.

Where and when: The NBC special premieres at 8 p.m. EST Tuesday.

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