Monday, January 11, 2010

Channeling music at the Liberace Museum

Minneapolis, Minnesota

As Philip Fortenberry tells the story, one day when he was four years old, while playing with his trucks under a tree in his yard in rural Hub, Mississippi, a sudden inspiration led him to drop everything, run into the house, sit down at the family piano, and begin playing all of the songs he had ever heard, and some that he had not. He had never played the piano before that day.

A prodigy, by age seven he played regularly at the Edna Baptist Church, a service he rendered, without pay, through high school, and continued at the Main Street Baptist Church in Hattiesburg while attending William Carey College. After moving to New York City, Fortenberry earned a Master of Music degree from New Jersey City University, and was an adjunct faculty member at New York University.

In his early career, Fortenberry became the musical director for Forbidden Broadway, the off-Broadway revue, and musical supervisor for the show's London production.

His later Broadway and touring performance credits include Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Saturday Night Fever, Ragtime, The Lion King, and many more. In 1990, Fortenberry and the mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade performed at the White House for two presidents, Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union and George H. W. Bush of the United States.

Since becoming a resident of Las Vegas, Fortenberry has played for several theater productions, including his current gig as a performer in Jersey Boys, the story of four kids from Newark, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. He also has worked with the Faith Community Lutheran Church and the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church.

Three afternoons a week, Fortenberry takes the stage in the 75-seat Cabaret Showroom at the Liberace Museum. There, at the keyboard of a mirrored, Baldwin grand piano used by Liberace at the Las Vegas Hilton, Caesars Palace, and Radio City Music Hall, Fortenberry holds forth with "Liberace and Me," an acoustic, cabaret style performance. The program serves as a vehicle for telling his own story while preserving the legacy of Liberace's music and style of entertaining. Audience members array themselves around small tables where they can nosh from a selection of light items from the cafe nearby.

Opening his act with Liberace's signature arrangement of Chopsticks, Fortenberry then wends his way through a mix of Liberace classics and Broadway show tunes, channeling the former master in all his harmonic brilliance. Each performance includes an improvised "Portrait of Music" for a member of the audience to honor Liberace's spirit of spontaneity. On Dec. 16, this gift was bestowed on a visitor celebrating her 87th birthday. The set closes with the audience joining Fortenberry in a sung rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You."

The boyishly handsome musician lingers afterward to engage visitors with an affable, though somewhat guarded, Southern charm, closing an experience that provides visitors with a pleasing prelude to an evening in the clubs and showrooms on the Las Vegas Strip. 

Philip Fortenberry plays The Cabaret Showroom at the Liberace Museum each Tue., Wed., and Sat., 1pm. 1775 East Tropicana Avenue (at Spencer), Las Vegas. 702.798.5595. Fortenberry on MySpace and YouTube.


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