Greenville’s Centre Stage Turns on the Stage Lights with a Tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes
By Steve Wong
Walking into Greenville’s Centre Stage theater this past Sunday afternoon was like walking into a high-class hotel lounge in Las Vegas in the 1960s. It was dark, except for dim glowing lights on small draped tables that were scattered throughout the stadium seats. Handsome men in black suits and beautiful women in glittery dresses were drinking martinis and flirting at the bar on the stage, which was cast in blue with two overhead chandeliers that dripped crystal. Like the lights, the pre-show music was low. I wondered if the Rat Pack might be present.
The Rat Pack didn’t show, but the spirit of Ol’ Blue Eyes was present and embodied in six performers and a jazz trio for “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra.” This was CentreStage’s first indoor live performance in 515 days, since the COVID pandemic shuttered performance venues around the country. Management erred on the side of caution, limiting attendance to accommodate social distancing. Patrons were not required to wear masks, but the staff did. Not only were the patrons in the mood for some serious crooning, they were just glad to get out of the house.
As an additional measure of safety, management provided the show’s playbill via patrons’ smartphones. No handing out printed playbills. The glow of cell phone screens throughout the room added to the already romantic atmosphere.
For the next two hours, the three men and three women channeled Sinatra through song, dance, and a wealth of quirky information about the singer, the actor, the man who never did encores. I was familiar with about half of the songs but completely enjoyed hearing lesser known songs.
This was a tribute performance, and no one dared to try to imitate the Chairman of the Board. However, if anyone on stage could have imitated that classic crooning voice, it would have been Craig Smith, who was making his Centre Stage debut. This South Carolina native and graduate of the SC School of the Arts at Anderson University had the rock-solid voice, the soft-shoe dance steps, and the polite stage presence that would have flattered Sinatra.
The two-act show grouped Sinatra’s songs into several thematic medley categories, such as Broadway, Cities, Young Love, Love and Marriage, Losers, Big Flirt, Survivors, and even the Moon. Who knew that one of Sinatra’s many albums — “Moonlight Sinatra” — was entirely about the moon? In all, there were more than 50 songs performed. In between the songs, the cast would banter and Champagne toast with each other and the audience about all things Sinatra.
To get the audience in the right frame of mind, the opening song was “Change Partners,” and the first medley was Favorites with “Cheek to Cheek,” “Blue Skies,” “All of Me,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and “High Hopes.” The first real applause went to Seth Hilderbrand for his rousing rendition of “Chicago, Chicago.” The Aiken native is studying performing arts at Clemson University with plans to graduate this December. This was his first time performing at CentreStage, and from audience feedback, he’ll probably be invited back. That medley set ended with “L.A. is My Lady,” which was a stand-on-the-bar kind of song with the entire ensemble revving up the room.
Ending the first act with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “All the Way,” the ensemble came together for some well choreographed jazz dancing, and Celia Blitzer brought down the house, proving that a lady can croon. Blitzer has been seen at CentreStage many times, since 2013 with roles in “Shaboom,” “Jekyll and Hyde,” “Addams Family,” and “The Producers.”
The second act brought out the white dinner jackets, evening gowns, and a salute to Losers. Although a bit sad, “It Was a Very Good Year” was a very good song for the ensemble. To revive the mood, the set ended with an upbeat “Here’s to the Losers.” The Big Flirt medley began to steer the mood toward happier times with “Young at Heart” and “You Make Me Feel So Young.” The young and beautiful Mariana Bracciale sang “You Go to My Head” with so much genuine warm and effortless intonation that I almost forgot that Sanatra’s deeper voice was the original source of her inspiration. This was her first mainstage show at CentreStage, however, she has been heard in “Fly Me to Moon,” a CS patio performance in 2020.
One of the finest performances of the evening was a duet of “Something Stupid” by Arleen Black and Brian Reeder, reminding me of when Sinatra and his daughter Nancy sang it in 1967. Black is gifted with a rich voice that can stretch amazingly high and low. She is an experienced performer and singer with several CS shows to her good credit. Reeder, too, is a veteran performer with a very long list of credits. His jazz voice and stage presence paired with Black’s at-ease nature made “Something Stupid” something absolutely enchanting.
After exploring moon-themed songs — “Fly Me to the Moon” — the show began to wind down with Songs for Survivors. They had saved the best for last with “The Best is Yet to Come;” New York, New York;” and, of course, “My Way.” Most appropriately, the curtain call song was “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
“My Way” was conceived and created by David Grapes and Todd Olson and first produced in New York and Tennessee in 1999 and 2000. Locally, it was directed by Laura Nicholas, Centre Stage’s managing artistic director. The cool jazz band members were Brice Tiffany on standing bass, Allwyn Edwards on drums, and Meghan Reimers as the band leader on piano.
As a theater, CentreStage could not have picked a better show to reopen after going dark for most of 2020. It is my opinion that we the people are more than ready to be entertained by flesh and blood instead of bytes and streaming. A more serious show might not have imprinted scenes and songs in our heads to be enjoyed for days afterwards as snippets of memories reminded us of the value of life theatre. Thank you, Centre Stage for turning on the stage lights in Upstate South Carolina. As Sinatra famously once said, “May you live to be 100, and may the last voice you hear be mine.”
Cheers to live theatre!