Tenderly at Centerstage
A musical love letter at an annotated night club
by Michael Dresdner
As soon as I stepped into the Centerstage theater I felt decidedly under dressed. The floor level area that normally serves as a stage had been transformed (by set designer Ben Baird) into an early 1960’s night club, right out of the Mad Men era. A blue and white checkerboard floor rose up a short staircase to a wide stage whose back wall was draped with chiffon. An eight piece dance band, with traditional display-front music stands, clustered on either side of the stairway. That was the backdrop for Tenderly, a lovingly annotated musical tribute to Rosemary Clooney.
Folks my own age may very well recall Clooney, whose versions of popular songs were all over radio, records and movies. But don’t worry if you are too young to remember her sweet, comforting voice and bittersweet life story. Tenderly covers just that in a format strikingly similar to the enthralling Ken Burns documentary Jazz.
The story of Clooney’s life is told in narration interspersed with her songs, chosen to match the mood of the story line, the chronology, or more often, both. A screen, placed high above the stage, carries projections of still photos showing Clooney and her associates to amplify and illustrate the story line. All told, it’s an entertaining history lesson about one of my generation’s greatest singers, done as a seamless and delightful evening of old style night club music.
Both the narration and singing is handled by two superb vocalists, sometimes singing together, as on Clooney’s famous duet Sisters from the movie White Christmas, but more often singing solo. Katherine Strohmaier, the younger of the two, covered the bulk of the songs in first of two acts, her sweet, lyric voice and equally sweet stage presence perfectly fitting the narrative of Clooney’s early career. A singing success at an early age, Clooney’s star rose until a drug fueled breakdown in 1968, the perfect spot for intermission.
The second half of the story, Clooney’s recovery and the decades long resurrection of her career, was handled primarily by equally talented Laurie Clothier. She brought the seasoned sound of a long time nightclub and stage performer, which is what Clooney was by then. Both women were perfectly suited to the task, working magic both as soloists and in several duets.
The whole was created and directed by Centerstage’s Resident Musical Director David Duvall, who also leads the band and handles keyboards. At one point, he surprised us all by picking up a microphone and joining Clothier for a Clooney/Crosby duet, while Strohmaier adroitly slipped onto his piano bench and took over the ivories.
The redoubtable perfectionist Duvall, whose musical skills and instincts are truly nonpareil, crafted this seamless melodic flow backed up by an amazing group of multi-instrumentalists; Rich Cole, Bruce Carpenter, Bud Jackson, Bill Branvold, Don Miller, Cary Black, and Bruce Simpson. They created a lovely background during narration and, of course, were the perfect dance band to showcase the delightful Clooney clones.
Lighting by Amy Silveria, who also did the screen images, was ideally suited to the times, with spot lights and travel spots on the two women, and a multi-hued light show behind. The chiffon-like back curtain acted as a semi-translucent scrim, its color changing with the music’s mood, often several times in the same song. Ron Leamon and Donna McNeal were responsible for the stunning period gowns worn by the two women. Knowing his penchant for collecting costume jewelry, I suspect Duvall had at least a hand in the two women’s sparkling adornments.
For a nostalgic, music-loving sap like me, this was a delightful and comforting visit to my younger days. For younger viewers, it may open a window onto a sonically sweet time in forgotten history. Either way, it’s a treasure.
March 16 through April 1, 2012