Beyond her hostile-blase, I’m-so-hip image cultivated on television, Sandra Bernhard turns out to be a terrific cabaret singer, with a potent sense of drama and an ability to stay true to a song musically while reshaping it into a new and personal story. On opening night of her current Chicago engagement, comedian-singer Bernhard’s too-few musical selections included a movingly individualized reading of Joni Mitchell’s Christmas blues “River,” a poignant rendition of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” wedded to an artful monologue about New York alienation, and an edgy, bitterly energetic cover of “Do You Wanna Funk?” as a cry of protest against the AIDS epidemic, which recently claimed the life of the song’s original singer, the disco star Sylvester. But the problem with an image is that it becomes hard to break out of it; every time she tried to explore genuine emotional nuance in her singing, Bernhard lost the attention of an audience there to hear her drop names and exude attitude. Now that her reputation has been enhanced by off-Broadway and TV success, Bernhard is going to have to work much harder to stay in control of her act. The idly whiny audience-rapport chatter doesn’t make it; the musical monologues, however, do. So does the able playing of keyboardist-musical director Mitch Kaplan, guitarist Ernie Denov, and drummer Paul Wertico. Tonight through Sunday, George’s, 230 W. Kinzie; 644-2290.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Gorman.