Review: Carolyn Montgomery Connects to Rosemary Clooney at 54 Below

Montgomery's tribute to Clooney will play soon in Florida, LA, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, & Seattle.

By: May. 26, 2024
Review: Carolyn Montgomery Connects to Rosemary Clooney at 54 Below
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At 54 Below on a spring night, there were perhaps as many cabaret singers in the packed audience as there would be populating the stage at the annual autumn Cabaret Convention concerts six blocks north!  They were among the fans, friends and music-lovers who’d come to cheer Carolyn Montgomery’s salute to Rosemary Clooney.  And she certainly received loud cheers and sustained applause throughout the program.  It was May 22 — 22 years after the passing of the legendary star — and the day before the 96th anniversary of her birth, one day in May in Maysville, Kentucky.  And may I add to the maze of similar words, that in the house were cabaret faves Marilyn Maye and Sally Mayes.  The former received applause when she entered the room and got a grateful shout-out from Miss Montgomery.  The latter was acknowledged as the encouraging and wise director of the show.  It’s a definite hit: sometimes a hoot, occasionally hot, and filled with heart.  The band included two faces familiar to cabaret attendees: the titanically talented Tedd Firth as pianist/musical director and supreme bassist Tom Hubbard, both the choices of so many other singers (including Maye and Mayes).  The evening had a special Clooney connection with the participation of the sterling brass player who was often in her band: Warren Vaché. This act, livestreamed that night, premiered in NYC in January, was recently presented in London, and will be seen soon in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle. (Read more about Montgomery's future plans for this show.)

Carolyn Montgomery immersed herself in Rosemary's recordings and life story to plan girlSINGER. (Montgomery initially resisted doing this show until director Sally Mayes made her read Clooney's autobiography three times!) There are some echoes of the legendary performer’s sound and phrasing, but this is by no means a copycat cabaret or impersonation, so no pun-loving observer could be tempted to call it “the Rosemary Clone-y show.”  Very much her own person, the night’s performer sparkled with joy and assertiveness, with the chops to belt.  The vivacious vocalist seems to especially relish the fun frolics and merry modes as she connects with the audience via strong eye contact, and a myriad of facial expressions, winking at the silly novelty tune hits that were arranged in a combustive combination – a mega-energetic mash-up. Drummer Sherrie Maricle, leader of the all-female DIVA! Orchestra, kept the changing tempi entertaining.  (It would’ve been cool to have her really “go to town” on numbers that could be even more rollicking; “Mambo Italiano” would be an ideal candidate.)  Also on the upbeat side was “Baby, the Ball Is Over,” which hijacked the melody of “After the Ball,” the sentimental waltz from the early 1890s and turned it into brash razzamatazz fashioned with a cavalier new lyric.  (A snippet of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” was tossed in.)       

Carolyn Montgomery evidenced gleefulness, gutsiness, and gusto from the get-go, opening with “Fancy Meeting You Here,” a lively Jimmy Van Heusen/ Sammy Cahn number recorded as a duet by pals Clooney and Bing Crosby on their album of the same title.  “The Second Time Around” was a second representation of the Van Heusen/Cahn collaborations, enhanced mightily via Vaché’s playing on this ballad.  On the subject of this kind of more sincere fare, Miss M. rarely suggests the creamy-voiced Clooney in her most demure, “lady-like” 1950s public persona.  Still, she can render “Tenderly” with sufficient tenderness and you couldn’t wish for more wistfulness on the yearning “I Wish It So.”  And there were no punches pulled in facing disappointing situations in love with “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” and “The Masquerade Is Over.” (This one’s emotion was accented by the work of reed player Jonathan Kantor.)   

Along the way, there was patter about the two singers’ lives and loves— how they were similar or different.  Topics addressed included the price of being a perpetual people-pleaser, fidelity, sexuality, romantic attraction.  There was some frank personal info, countered by the more coy/reserved comment that she’d known sorrows and crises, saying “I will not talk about them; however, I will sing about them,” letting the people in the crowd she drew to draw their own conclusions.  And that singing is assured and attractive.

Clooney's repertoire has been featured in various singers’ tribute shows in NYC and beyond (Liz McCartney’s is the one I saw and admired), on CDs (notably, those by Bette Midler and Rosemary Clooney’s daughter-in-law, singer Debby Boone), and her life story with its ups and downs have been the subject of not just books, but a biomusical stage piece (Tenderly) and a 1982 TV movie biography.  However, the fresh and fine-tuned Montgomery method is to approach things through her own worthy perspective on the star, through a personal, pensive, and modern-day lens.      

Find more ucoming shows at 54 Below on their website.

Learn more about Carolyn Montgomery and find out where to follow her online on her website.

Header photo credit: Conor Weiss. (View more photos from the night taken by Conor.)


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