Thursday, November 8, 2018

Give My Regards...Philip Fortenberry

Several years ago I was visiting the Liberace Museum along my sister and as we were approaching the end of our visit we were told that it would be closing soon, for good.  One of the last performances of a one man show at this location was about to begin.  As we entered the museum's cabaret theater I noticed one of Liberace's pianos onstage. A man then sat down at it and played some of Liberace's songs with amazing talent and grace. After that he did something I'll always remember. He said, "I'm going to look around the room at each and every one of you for a few moments and play what sound I feel when I do." He then proceeded to do just that, looking at each person for a few moments and one by one played a melody; some soft and slow, others strong and more up-tempo but all a bit different and incredibly beautiful.  That was the first time I ever met Philip Fortenberry.

Recently my sister and I repeated the experience of seeing Philip perform a one man show, this time at Myron's Cabaret Jazz. Philip's one night only show, "Give My Regards," was a salute to the music of Broadway and musical theatre. It was also a story about how that music played a part in his life and career. He shared some of those stories with the audience.

Philip Fortenberry "Give My Regards"...Photo Credit Myron Martin

"As a pianist in New York City for many years, and now Las Vegas since 2004, I've been playing the music of Broadway and musical theatre for much of my life. The music in this concert is reflective of my career, and because I have played many of the shows represented, this music is very personal to me. Indeed, I was the original pianist for several of these shows and the first musician to play some of this music. This is respectfully, my own salute to Broadway."  - Philip Fortenberry

After his opening song Philip told the audience he was born and raised in rural Mississippi. He said at the age of four he was outside by himself and suddenly felt this overwhelming urge to go inside and play the piano. He had never played before, and knew nothing about it. They had a piano but nobody ever played it. He sat down at it and performed two entire songs. The housekeeper immediately contacted his parents at work and said to come home quick, Philip was playing the piano! That discovery of his gift was the seed that planted his career. Following that experience he took lessons from his aunt, who happened to be one of only two piano teachers in town.

fter he graduated from college the first musical he worked on was in Mississippi with Patti Lupone and Kevin Kline. Philip followed that performing in the production "Forbidden Broadway," a spoof of Broadway shows which required constant updates to stay relevant and humorous.

His next show he was thrilled to be involved in because it was in New York City and a real Broadway show. It was called "Cleavage," but unfortunately as sometimes happens on The Great White Way, it had a very short run, to say the least. Following that he toured with a group that performed the music of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Michael Crawford, who was the original "Phantom of the Opera," was part of that tour. Philip then played some of Weber's music for the audience; Don't Cry for me Argentina, and I don't know how to love him, followed by The Phantom of the Opera and All I Ask of You, among others.

He shared his experience as a musician in "Ragtime" and played a song from that show. After that was a stint in "Seussical the Musical" where Philip worked with Stephen Flaherty and was the first to play the music for that show.  He then performed Solla Sallew for the audience. Building on that theme he followed with songs from animated musicals including the theme song from "Beauty and the Beast", A Whole New World, from "Aladdin," and Can you Feel the Love Tonight, from "The Lion King." 

Then, mentioning Ira Gershwin as another inspiration, Philip performed Gershwin's Embraceable You and Someone to Watch Over Me, among other songs. He then talked about how he lived in New York City during the 9/11 attacks on our country and shared the impact that had on him and his fellow New York City artists and what they did to help cheer people up. He added that not surprisingly the first Broadway hit after 9/11 was the upbeat "Mamma Mia!"... He then played Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia,  plus a ballad from that show. 

Although he said he has not yet had the chance to play any of their songs as part of a full musical production, he featured some of the music of Rogers and Hammerstein in his show.

Philip in China...Photo Credit Shelley Mansholt Thomas

Philip talked about how he had just completed a 14 city tour of China introducing the songs of Broadway to a younger generation. About this trip he said, "As an American pianist with a career in theater, and much of it from the Broadway world specifically, the audiences in China seemed intrigued by every element of that," and "The music of Broadway always has some kind of story, a context in which it is to be shared. The repertoire I performed in China was precisely that, and as a pianist I could allow the power of music as the universal language to share those perspectives."

Philip said that although he has performed in amazing venues all over the world, one of his best performances and one of his favorite places to have ever played was the historic Union Station in Washington, D.C. It was specially decorated for a party that night for the late Margaret Thatcher.  He had performed Memory with Laurie Beechman who played Grizabella the Glamour Cat in "Cats." Laurie passed away not long after. He closed with Memory as the final song for "Give My Regards."  

Philip Fortenberry is a magnificent pianist. The night was sensational! 

"Give My Regards" was produced by PK Music.  

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Bronx Wanderers

While getting a drink at the casino bar at Bally's with one of my girlfriends I mentioned to Jimmy the bartender that we were there to see "The Bronx Wanderers." Jimmy said emphatically "Oh you're going to love the show!" I believed him because bartenders know. At least the ones in Las Vegas do. They've seen a lot of acts come and go. If he'd just said "That's a popular show," or "Yeah they're nice guys," I know what that means and it's usually not great. Then a few couples seated around me joined in that they were also there to see the show; all for the second or third time. One guy said he'd seen them in Florida awhile ago before they were a Vegas act and came to town just to see them again. 

Later we were seated at Bally's Windows Showroom, a cabaret style theater, watching "The Bronx Wanderers." The charismatic Vinny Adinolfi, otherwise know as Yo' Vinny declares to the audience "I'm living the dream!" Then he announces the band recently celebrated their two year anniversary as a Las Vegas act. I get the feeling this show is based on the premise that audiences like to feel connected to the performers on stage by hearing about their lives, because that's what they do throughout the night. Vinny shares his life right from the start. He talks about his journey, first as a teenager wanting to get into show business; then with a low level job at a major label which eventually led to a long career as a successful music producer. After years of that he decided to follow another dream, one that included performing. 

He first recruited friends and then later his two sons who now form the core of the band. They played and toured for several years before landing a permanent home in Las Vegas. The production has been a hit with fans since it first came here and I think that is partly due to Vinny's history as a music producer. He knew what songs to include in their set lists, and what kind of vocalists and musicians were needed to create the sound and feel of "The Bronx Wanderers," which by the way is the name of the show and the band. He also made a show out of it and not just a concert of cover songs, which it could have ended up being without the storytelling and multimedia mixed in with the music. 
L to R Joe Bari, David Braun, Nicky Stix, Yo' Vinny, Vin. A, and Fernando Tort
Their talent and skill is obvious early on in with a killer version of Walk Like A Man and a medley of Billy Joel songs. Then Vin A. owns as lead vocalist on Bohemian Rhapsody. I just saw Adam Lambert do that song with Queen last month and Vin A. is of the same caliber. He also crushes Brian Setzer's Rock This Town, (and I don't even like that song, but I loved his version). Oh and great touch with wardrobe on that one, white shoes and white and gold guitar. Other highlights include hits by artists John Fogerty and Bruno Mars.

The vocals are only half of it as the musicians are fantastic in this show and are the show, as much as the vocalists. Vinny is a great band lead and host and also plays acoustic guitar. His son Vin A. is the music director, and vocals and keyboard. His other son Nicky Stix (who also performed in Jersey Boys), is as sharp as they come on drums and back up vocals. Joe Bari plays sax, guitar, keyboard, and background vocals. His powerful sax always seemed to come in just at the right time to add something special to certain songs. David Braun on lead guitar and backing vocals has the sound and the swagger, and Fernando Tort is top notch on bass guitar & backing vocals. 

also pays tribute to his wife who has sacrificed a lot for her husband and sons to be on the road all the time pursuing their dream and making music. Classy move to mention that, as it is too often overlooked, the partners behind the performers. He also says the current band are all former high school classmates of his sons. Vinny talks about his first trip to Vegas at 12 years of age, seeing Elvis perform, and how the seed of his musical career was planted that day and has now come full circle.

This article only highlights some of the show, as there is so much more to it than I've mentioned here. This show runs nightly at Bally's Hotel & Casino, which means they work seven days a week, every week. Same guys, every day. Hope they don't burn themselves out. We're going to want them here for a very long time. "The Bronx Wanderers" explode with talent, style and heart!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Composers Showcase...A Variety of Originals

Last week I attended a recurring musical event that has great word of mouth around town. Run by composer Keith Thompson of PK Entertainment, "The Composer's Showcase" is the work of several composers, musicians and singers presenting their original work about once a month at Myron's Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center.

The show first began with a group of musical directors and composers working and living in Las Vegas who wanted to get together and showcase their own new music. That was 12 years ago and it's still going strong. Most are established composers and artists with an occasional up and comer in the mix. This is not an open mic style show but a planned and rehearsed production of a variety of original music.

Keith Thompson, Photo by Ira Kuzma
Composer Keith Thompson  not only produces the event but is also the emcee. Keith opened last week's show with a lighthearted song that set the tone for a  night of congenial entertainment. The other half of PK Entertainment, Philip Fortenberry joined some of the acts on piano, appearing and disappearing from the stage (like a brilliant musical ghost).

After Keith was Dr. Mark Wherry who sang with some of his students from College of Southern Nevada. The song was called Financially Made and was a humorous reflection on the rigors of financial aid. His students sounded great and had fun attitude and character in their performance. Next up was Jordan Sanders who sang her original son Man in the Moon while playing guitar. Jordan is a student at Las Vegas Academy and her voice is enchanting. 

Jeff Leibow sat down at the piano and shared a meaningful song he wrote about the loss of a baby six years ago called Lost Soul. It was sorrowful and comforting at the same time because it had an uplifting message about lost souls ultimately finding their way home. It takes a lot for a performer to share something so personal and I think that means a lot to an audience. It did to me.

After him
one of my favorite composers Michelle Johnson sang a song she wrote on a bus while touring many years ago about a dead end relationship...I Don't Make Your Heart Sing. Spellbinding as always, I enjoy when Michelle shares some of her original music (like she did at her most recent show at Myron's this past summer). Michelle then had a surprise for us all and introduced Lousie Goffin who performed one of her songs, The Last Time I Saw my Sister, from her upcoming album "All These Hellos." 

Dennis Blair inspired chuckles with his comedic song It's Not A Good Idea, about a man who obviously does not think he should marry his girlfriend! This performance featured Joey Singer on piano. Although touted as a comedian, Dennis is also an excellent singer, as proven on his most recent album Hapless Romantic. 

A dynamic performance of his song Explode by Kyle Khou, was a hit with the crowd as well.  Kyle was an American Idol finalist and has an album out titled "No Boxes." Focusing on the Halloween month that is October, Rylan Leo Helmuth debuted what I'll refer to as a spooky horror opera style song that I don't recall the name of but involved powerfully talented singers and a string section which added a haunting depth. I get scared easily so I had to busy myself with my Bento Box and cocktail, (Myron's serves food and drinks during shows). 

Then Matt Dorman introduced Betsy Holms who sang Empty House, a beautifully done version of a classic country song reminiscent of Tammy Wynette. Following her was Halsey Harkins who sat down at the piano and shared her song Technicolor Shades; which she said came to her after seeing someone desperately intoxicated, and the melancholy surrounding that moment.

One of my favorites of the night was a song by Keith Thompson that he said he wrote years ago when going through an especially self reflective time. It's called I Am The Song, about meaning in life and spreading light. Philip Fortenberry was on piano and David Warner on what they referred to as a harp cello. I mentioned to Keith after the show how touching his song was and he said, "Thank you that was hard for me to do. I'm usually joking around and this song shows a more serious side of me."
Elijah Rock with Uli Geissendoerfer  Photo by PK Entertainment
Closing the show was Elijah Rock.  It was his first appearance at this event and he was rocking the white tux style jacket with black trim exceptionally well, not to mention his voice and vocal style! Accompanied by Uli Geissendoerfer he sang Matters of the Heart then New York in the Springtime.  Elijah's new album is "Gershwin for My Soul." Elijah's motto, "Keeping Thine Eyes to the Future and Thy Ears to the Past," fits him well. 

I absolutely loved this production. With it's eclectic style, congenial feel and high caliber performances, "The Composer's Showcase" makes its own kind of magic.

October 10 "The Composers Showcase", Dennis Blair, Matt Dorman, Uli Geissendoerfer, Louise Goffin, Halsey Harkins, Rylan Leo Helmuth, Marisa Johnson, Michelle Johnson, Kyle Khou, Jeff Leibow, Elijah Rock, Jordan Sanders, Ketih Thompson, Mark Wherry. The performers were Thomas Calvin, Sam Holder, Betsy Holms, Jenelle Magbutay, Gret Menzies, Karsten Pudwill, Coco Lane Rigbye, Jolana Sampson, Ashley Stone, Rachel Tyler. The show included some performers and musicians not mentioned here. 

"The Composer's Showcase" is now a Nevada nonprofit. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Comedy Cellar Continued

The Comedy Cellar Las Vegas opened about six months ago and has been finding its footing ever since.  I like CCLV because they capture the spirit, energy and spontaneous nature of the original Comedy Cellar New York with their intimate venue, constant action, diverse talent and occasional surprises.

Saturday night the audience was treated to one of those surprises. Before I get to that I want to compliment the nightly emcee, Mark Cohen who by now seems very much at home here. This was my third visit to the club and Mark opened the show with his usual audience riffing which includes banter with some of the Las Vegas locals who frequent the Comedy Cellar as well as tourists; who always provide ripe material for what they refer to in the comedy business as crowd work. Mark is funny and high energy without appearing to be trying too hard. 

Matteo, Leo, Traci, Rocky, Mark - Photo from @traciskene

Mark had a special surprise for us last night. Just a comedian stopping by for a short set who turned out to be comedy legend Ray Romano!  Sporting a mustache for his current role in the TV Series Get Shorty, he mentioned he enjoyed being at the Comedy Cellar Las Vegas since he had actually gotten his start at the Comedy Cellar in New York about 25 years ago. Ray wondered about the need for wake up calls in Vegas, (considering nobody ever goes to bed), bemoaned the effects of aging on the sex life with a particularly funny reference to current events, as well as some improvisation about needing more doctors as friends at his age, since he always seems to need one anyway. They don't allow recording at the Comedy Cellar so I have no photos of his set...I actually like that rule. Keeps things real time.

Ray Romano was actually the second comedian to perform that night. First up was Rocky Dale Davis, a funny southerner who claims he's 25, but looks much older, or so he says. He performed before Ray so was the only comic that didn't have to follow a legend in the line-up. That's probably why he seemed so relaxed. Or maybe it's just the Southern accent. 

Next up was Leo Flowers, who is really not that ambitious.  I'm not insulting him, just repeating his catchphrase and the basis of his act.  He also reminds women they don't want a man who is too ambitious, and his reasons are funny but also ring true. Leo also talks about how his mother came to the U.S. illegally from Belize. That was a brave statement, or joke, not sure which one, but still courageous material to present in today's political climate. I liked Leo, but he was not as relaxed as Rocky...probably because he had to follow Ray Romano!

Following Leo was Traci Skene, who talks about the ups and downs of being 53. Yes, it's true, she admitted her actual age. Another brave comic! There are quite a few hilarious "shares" here, as she explains the pitfalls but also the advantages, such as the fact that a woman over 50 is less likely to be abducted by a serial killer! She also talks about how nobody over 40 wants to "make love all night long" like in the love songs, (more like about 30 minutes).  Traci has great material and excellent segues from bit to bit, and although not as mainstream famous as Ray Romano, every bit a pro and has been for a long time.

Matteo Lane closed out the night. I saw him earlier this year at Comedy Cellar. He's a delight. Matteo is funny, snide but also upbeat, and super gay in the best possible way. He talks about the fact that his brother is also gay and how that is like a "second Vietnam" to their father. Aww, I felt kind of bad laughing about that one, but I did. He talks about how he watches Ghost Hunters but wonders why they have never in 16 seasons caught even one ghost! I like Matteo as a show closer because his high energy pumps up the crowd as we all spill out of the club and into the casino.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

What happens to the millions of fans who are left behind when a rock star suddenly dies? About one year ago on July 20, 2017 Chester Bennington, who was lead singer of the internationally renowned band Linkin Park, committed suicide. 

Matthew Vinaja was one of the fans affected by Chester's death. In the intro to his documentary, We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary, he talks about how after finding out about Chester's suicide he listened constantly to his music and drove himself crazy thinking about it. Matthew said what helped him most was talking to other fans. "An idea then came to me. I decided to make a documentary. Not about Linkin Park, or even about Chester Bennington, but about the fans." Matthew chose five of Chester's fans who were brave enough to share their stories of the effect his death has had on them. 

I have never followed Linkin Park, and could only ever name one or two of their songs, but after watching this documentary I understand their music so much better that I am now also a fan.

We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

The five fans featured in We Do are Andy Cool, Mary Winning, Kristine Escobedo, Phil Donney, and Adrienne McQueen, (who is also Executive Producer). In it they talk about what it was like to find out about the tragic suicide of a musician that they loved, felt close to and whose lyrics got them through some of their life's darkest times. "I screamed like I've never heard myself scream," says Adrienne, "The first thing I thought was this has to be a hoax," said Phil. "I just kept thinking the real news will come out soon," added Andy.

About the days that followed and it sunk in that Chester was gone Phil had this to say, "There's a lot of different factors that go into not only mourning a celebrity but mourning someone whose committed suicide so there's that anger and resentment to it." Adrienne added, "I felt really sick. I couldn't really speak to a lot of people, especially people who didn't really understand me." Mary couldn't really work so she browsed the internet trying to figure out how and why he could do it. Andy pissed off friends because he was all over the place emotionally. "It felt like we were all sort of thrown into this macro grieving process together," added Phil.

In We Do, the fans also talk about how it felt to listen to Linkin Park's music after losing Chester.
Grieving fans from We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

A variety of memorials followed Chester's death. Each of the five fans in the documentary attended at least one of them, some of them two or three. "I attended one in Berlin, my hometown." Mary said. Andy helped organize and performed at the one in L.A. and in Las Vegas. Adrienne attended three, including the one in Las Vegas at Club Tattoo, where she also performed. (I also attended the one in Las Vegas. Adrienne is a long time friend of mine, and I had never before seen her this devastated by the loss of an artist, so I showed up to support her.)

To me, the most meaningful part of We Do is when the fans talk about how much the LP Family means to them.  What started out as random Linkin Park fans turning to each other for comfort became a source for meaningful friendships and an ad hoc support group for those mourning the loss of the band's front man. "I'm very happy they're out there and I've met them and they understand, says Adrienne.  Kristine adds "Without this community I think I'd be lost. When I was down they brought me right back up." 

In the documentary the fans also share their advice for others on how to handle the loss of a favorite musician or artist, and speak about what helped them get through theirs.

Near the end of We Do, Matthew sums it up with this message, "Chester told us the one thing that can't be defeated is love. We have to make him proud by continuing supporting each other, loving each other and inspiring each other. We're all in this together."

We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary Link below We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

Copyright Anna Wendt 2018