Carolyn Montgomery in “girlSINGER—A Celebration of Rosemary Clooney”
If someone wants to experience a textbook example of the way to do a tribute show in a cabaret, they need look no further than Carolyn Montgomery’s girlSINGER: A Celebration of Rosemary Clooney, which debuted recently at Birdland, New York’s venerable, historic jazz club. With an immensely talented quintet of musicians, savvy direction by Sally Mayes, and Montgomery’s always impressive vocals, the singer managed to provide just enough of a glimpse into the life of the iconic American singer with minimal patter and maximum charm, while at the same time revealing herself in a beautifully chosen group of songs associated with Clooney’ s storied and long-lasting career.
Music director Tedd Firth assembled a first-rate band (including Matt Scharfglass on bass, Sherrie Maricle on drums, Jonathan Kantor on saxophone and clarinet, and the legendary Warren Vaché, who frequently played trumpet with Clooney) that provided highly evocative sounds to cushion the singer’s thoughtful, witty, powerful, and emotional vocals no matter the song or the style. The patter, which was economical, entertaining, and informative, contained the perfect amount of personal information to tie herself more intimately to both Clooney and her hits.
“Fancy Meeting You Here” (Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn) was a natural to open the festivities, the title track from a duet album with Bing Crosby that I have always liked. The interplay between Montgomery and Firth (in the Crosby role) was a humorous callback to that simpler time. The verse of Marc Blitzstein’s “I Wish It So” seemed like an invocation of sorts to lead into one of the icon’s signature songs, “Hey There” (Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, from Pajama Game). Vaché’s artful solo gave the song a lovely historic patina that deepened the singer’s connection to the material. The blending of the horns on “I Can’t Get Started” (Vernon Duke, Ira Gershwin) provided the sonority of a big band which fit perfectly with the self-deprecating, bittersweet lyric beautifully phrased by the singer. This was so good, in fact, that I immediately forgave an awkward rewrite of the Gershwin lyric to include a mention of Lady Gaga.
Bringing her own life front and center (with a sly mention of the “golden age” rumors of a relationship between Clooney and Marlene Dietrich), she introduced a cheeky “bi” medley. Including the songs in this context provided a breath of fresh air for “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (Nat King Cole, Irving Mills), “Nice ‘n’ Easy” (Lew Spence, Alan and Marilyn Bergman), and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” (Nat D. Ayer, A. Seymour Brown) and the singer’s breezy, swinging vocals were perfection. A later medley, which was a cheese platter full of Clooney’s infamous and popular Italian-accented special material, began with one of her biggest hits, “Come On-a My House” (William Saroyan, Ross Bagdasarian) and grew more wildly funny with each addition as Montgomery proved herself more and more a first-class clown in addition to her singing talents.
Another of Clooney’s signature songs, “Tenderly” (Walter Gross, Jack Lawrence) grew nicely out of story about José Ferrer, and was followed by a delightful mid-tempo take on Oscar Levant’s “Blame It on My Youth” that was marred slightly by an unnecessary scat chorus that was decidedly “un-Clooney.” Reflecting Clooney’s embrace of more contemporary material, the singer did a haunting version of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” that rivaled the original, and then, as a last blast from the vital, consistently exciting quintet, she thrillingly maneuvered John Pizzarelli’s arrangement of “Let Go” (Baden Powell de Aquino). If the verse of “I Wish It So” at the top of the set was an invocation, the full song became a full-on blessing to close the show. The simple beauty of the song and Montgomery’s voice were an exquisite close to what will surely be one of the best shows of 2024.
girlSINGER: A Celebration of Rosemary Clooney was a triumph and Carolyn Montgomery was the star at its warm, glowing center. When it returns, and it must, do not miss it.
Presented at Birdland, 315 W. 44th St., NYC, January 18, 2024.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”