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Concert: Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall

A most unlikely and perfectly natural fit

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

They are at once the most unlikely of singing partners and a perfect match. He is 88, she is 29. They are both of Italian heritage (Anthony Dominick Benedetto, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) yet universes apart culturally. He’s a snazzy dresser, always in an impeccably tailored suit, she is known for donning outrageous costumes, most notably a dress festooned with meat.

Where their paths intersect is the Great American Songbook, those standards from the first half of the 20th century that somehow never get old-especially in the right hands. For two hours at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on June 20, the second of a four-night stand on their joint Cheek to Cheek Tour-titled after their wonderful 2014 album release-Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga surveyed that canon in tandem and individually. It was pure delight.

Gaga is the one with something to prove in this musical arena. Bennett has been a fixture in American vocal music since the early 1950s, one of the last of the great interpreters of his era still standing. That he can still sing at his age is a blessing; that his skills are virtually intact is nothing short of miraculous. She’s relatively new to this, having built her fame and fortune less than a decade ago on contemporary dance-pop. That she too could sing has never been in question; that she could sing these songs so convincingly has been a revelation.

They opened with Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” she swinging a sash topping her rhinestone-draped, abalone-colored gown, he just swinging. She’s riveting to look at, of course, but commanding when she opens her mouth. Bennett’s only got his voice and charm to go on. It’s got more of a rasp to it these days, but retains the flexibility and magnetism of his peak years. Whatever an 88-year-old voice is supposed to sound like, it’s not this.

The program is paced well, albeit tilted in Bennett’s favor-Gaga’s frequent exits allowed for seven costume changes (only one truly risqué, the others merely opulent) and several Bennett solo turns. Some of the show’s highlights occurred when Gaga was offstage: Bennett turned Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” into a blues-infused triumph, and his solo spots on “The Good Life,” Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” and a medley of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling” served as reminders of why Tony Bennett is an ongoing gift to popular music. His greatest hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” was as touching as ever and his two-song tribute to his “best friend” Frank Sinatra, “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” was respectful while devoid of obvious Sinatra-isms.

Bennett’s control and instinct for dynamics is nonpareil; audience members didn’t just applaud when he finished a song, they often gasped. At one point, Bennett turned his microphone off, placed it on the piano and sang a few verses sans amplification-his voice could be heard clearly in the mezzanine, a nod not only to the acoustic properties of this glorious room but the man’s communicative powers. That alone earned him a standing ovation.

Gaga too ventured out on her own several times, and her nuanced and knowing renditions of the standards left no doubt that she’s in this for real. “I learn so much from Tony every night,” she said, and that was apparent in her sassy and classy approach to tunes as ubiquitous as Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” She reinvented the ’60s Cher hit “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” as a regretful dirge and nailed the Edith Piaf cornerstone “La Vie en Rose”-in the original French. Gaga brought along her own combo, which occupied stage left; Bennett brought his, settled in across the stage. Behind them a battery of string players flanked the length of the stage. It was all quite impressive.

It was, of course, the duets that most folks came here to hear. For the most part, they were striking, despite a few harmonies that didn’t quite gel. Despite the age difference, it came off not as creepy when the two danced together or Gaga draped an arm around Bennett, but as a display of mutual admiration. Gaga injected something of a camp element but didn’t overdo it. She obviously loves this material and relishes the opportunity to share these shows with such an acknowledged mentor. There was repartee, but it was playful, never silly or crude. Mostly, they just sang their hearts out, both on ballads (“Nature Boy,” “But Beautiful”) and uptempo kickers (“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “The Lady is a Tramp”).

They ended the show with “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” There was no encore. There was no need for one. They’d said everything that needed to be said and sung everything that needed to be sung.

Originally Published