Clooney: Charisma plus

REVIEW: The legendary singer and company fill Segerstrom Hall to brimming with 'White Christmas' cheer and memories.

December 17, 2000

By STEVE EDDY - The Orange County Register

There was no sing-along. There should have been a sing-along. Bummer.

That being said, sometimes the job of "critic" can simply be left at the door, thank you. This critic, at least, joined the rest of the audience at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Thursday night in being moved to laughter and tears by the often spine-tingling entertainment that was "Rosemary Clooney's White Christmas Party."

The ingredients? Nothing much. Just one of the world's most beautiful concert halls, members of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, two full choirs, top-notch featured performers and a jam-packed house of people brimming with good cheer.

Oh, and the star, Rosemary Clooney.

Clooney, with more than 50 years of performing to her credit, is exactly that -- a star in the truest sense, boasting copious quantities of authenticity and charisma that contemporary entertainment figures can only dream about. And her voice - unmistakably hers, it couldn't possibly be anybody else - is as pure and sweet as ever but also burnished by maturity. Abetted by the John Oddo-led orchestra and the Villa Park High School Chamber Singers, she delivered marvelous versions of chestnuts such as "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" "The Christmas Song," "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and a jaunty "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."

As with all Clooney shows, there was nearly as much banter as music. This is a good thing. Her brand of self-deprecating humor is peerless. Who else could get belly laughs with a knee-replacement story? And undeniably, there is a wealth of history in this woman, and the floodgates opened when a big movie screen came down at the rear of the stage.

This was a "White Christmas Party," after all, and scenes of the 1954 classic began to be shown. Clooney watched the clips, critiqued her own dancing and told tales of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen that were at once hilarious and sweet.

If Clooney's performance had to be crystallized, it would all come down to two utterly transendent numbers. One was Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings," Crosby's favorite song from the picture and one that Clooney also obviously adores. It was sung with a nearly heavenly reverence, with Clooney allowing its starkly simple message of hope to shine.

And to no one's surprise, she closed the show with "White Christmas" itself, a flawless performance of the ultimate holiday song by a woman who is just as much of a classic herself.

Clooney alone would have been more than enough. But wait, there was more - so much more. Flamboyant pianist John Bayless - an improbable mixture of Beethoven and Jerry Lee Lewis - was riotously funny and deeply affecting in his opening stint, both solo and joined by the orchestra and California State University, Fullerton, Singers. His specialty is a sort of cross-pollination of musical styles. For instance, he opened with a bravura performance of "America" as Beethoven would played it, added "Jingle Bells" Mozart-style, then responded to a request by doing up "Silent Night" as a dark, dissonant Stravinsky piece. This was amusing, as was his singing of Tom Lehrer's "Hanukkah in Santa Monica." But when it became serious -- the transformation of part of an Italian opera into a tribute to pianist Bill Evans -- the result was deeply emotional and sublime.

Debby Boone, Clooney's daughter-in-law, brought a little Broadway-style pizzazz to the proceedings with some neat numbers, including a swinging "My Favorite Things," a sincere and very spiritual "Silent Night," and a goose-bumpy rendition of "Christmastime Is Here" from the ubiquitous "A Charlie Brown Christmas" annual TV special. And, of course, there was her signature number, "You Light Up My Life," which she performed brilliantly and passionately, as if it was the number's debut.