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Pop Music Review

Aznavour Still an Energetic, Irresistible Presence on Stage

November 20, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a reason Charles Aznavour is mentioned in the company of Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Judy Garland. And the reason is presence.

Sure, he sings beautifully. Sure, he writes songs that are compelling in any language. And sure, he knows how to command a stage.

But the essence of his art, its heart and soul, is his capacity to bring a sense of extraordinary presence to everything he does. Like Sinatra, Piaf and Garland--all contemporaries, all similar in the intensity of their performances--Aznavour exudes an energy that is completely infectious. Like them, he is an irresistible focal point whenever he is on stage.

Wednesday, in the opening performance of a five-concert run at the Wilshire Theatre, Aznavour, 74, made it clear from his very first number that he is still very much at peak form. Living legend he may be, but he retains the capacity to electrify his material, to bring it to life with a believability that fully justifies his celebrated status.

Working with an unusual backing--a string ensemble, a full rhythm section and two backup singers--he reexamined some of his best-known material, all of which he either wrote or co-wrote. The most familiar for American listeners was "When the World Was Young," a passionate performer's statement, done by Aznavour with a characteristically wry twist to its resigned conclusion.

But his program, sung in French, English and Spanish, included other equally compelling numbers: "What Makes a Man," rendered with subtlety and understanding, surveyed the life of a gay female impersonator; "Je Bois" was a bitter accounting of a man's use of alcohol; the poignant "La Mamma" described the scene of a mother's death.

There were somewhat lighter tunes, as well, such as "La Boheme," many resonating with the frothy pop sounds of the French hits Aznavour created in the '50s and '60s. All of it was done with the kind of masterful stagecraft--the toss of his head, the rolling of his eyes, the sudden, graceful dance steps--that are so utterly Aznavouresque, so utterly a part of his ineffable presence as an artist.

* Charles Aznavour performs tonight and Saturday at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 8 p.m. Also Sunday at 3 p.m. $35-$75. (323) 480-3232.

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