The McKendree Connection: Talented alumns to perform benefit concert

News-DemocratJune 27, 2013 

Broadway actress and singer Anna McNeely will return to McKendree University on Friday as part of an alumni concert, and she's bringing a friend who has had a very interesting year.

Pianist Philip Fortenberry served as the body double for star Michael Douglas in "Behind the Candelabra," a much-hyped HBO movie about Liberace that premiered in May.

Fortenberry, 54, of Las Vegas, was filmed playing piano to pre-recorded music.

"They put (Douglas' head) on my body," he said. "With technology today, they can make it look like one person is doing it all, when it's actually two people. They merge the (images) together."

Fortenberry practiced for hours wearing giant rings, including one with rhinestones outlining a grand piano. The movie shows several close-ups of his hands.

"To me, that was the biggest trauma," Fortenberry said. "They had to glue the rings to my fingers (during filming to keep them from flopping around and hitting the keys)."

As a nod to Liberace, Fortenberry will perform his arrangement of "Chopsticks" at McKendree, in addition to other piano solos and his accompaniment of McNeely's vocal numbers.

"Singin' and Swingin'" will begin at 7 p.m. in Hettenhausen Center for the Arts on campus (pre-show at 6:30). It's a fundraiser for renovations at Lebanon First United Methodist Church. Tickets cost $25.

"We have some very talented folks," said Norbert Krausz, of St. Louis, a singer, director and producer who is organizing the fundraiser with Shirley Schaefer.

Krausz will serve as emcee and sing "You're Just in Love" from "Call Me Madam" with Ellen Leaf-Moore. He also will perform "'S Wonderful" and "Embraceable You" by George Gershwin. The latter is his favorite.

"It's just a wonderful Gershwin song with a smooth melody that I like to sing as a baritone," Krausz said. "It's one of those great American standards."

Distinguished alumni in "Singin' and Swingin'" include Charles Rann, Richard Boyd, Susan Constance, Edward "Ted" Cook, Mark Gifford, Rusty Lucy and McNeely. They will be joined by guests Fortenberry, Krausz and Leaf-Moore.

The singers and musicians will perform mostly Broadway hits, inspirational songs and '40s classics.

"It's about 90 minutes of music," Krausz said. "It will be a wonderful reunion (for alumni and friends)."

The most well known is McNeely, who earned a vocal music degree at McKendree in 1972. She moved to New York City and debuted on Broadway in "Little Johnny Jones."

McNeely went on to originate the role of Jennyanydotts in the Broadway hit "Cats." She starred as Miss Electra in "Gypsy," reprised the role in a made-for-TV movie and performed in "Beauty and the Beast" for nine years.

McNeely and Fortenberry have performed three concerts at McKendree. They've been collaborating for nearly three decades.

"I did my one-woman show without him last year, and I said I'd never do it again," said McNeely, 63, who now lives in Florida and teaches at Martz Jupiter Theatre's Conservatory of Performing Arts. "We just work so well together."

Their act Friday night will include "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Blue Sky," "Gettin' Ready Rag," "For Good" (from "Wicked"), "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "Goodbye My Friend."

The latter is a new composition by Keith Thompson, who's conducting the Las Vegas production of "Jersey Boys." Fortenberry is associate conductor.

Fortenberry served two years as artist-in-residence at the Liberace Museum, which closed in 2010. He was invited to audition as Douglas' body double in "Behind the Candelabra."

"Liberace was indeed a serious pianist," Fortenberry said. "They didn't want to just hire an actor to fake it. They wanted a real pianist who could play his music."

Fortenberry initially was torn by the possible job opportunity because the movie is based on a tell-all book by Liberace's young assistant and lover Scott Thorson. It's viewed by some as damaging to the famous showman's reputation.

Fortenberry noted that many residents of the Las Vegas area, where Liberace lived, remember him as generous, loyal, good-natured, caring and talented.

"I decided to go ahead with (the movie job) and keep focused on the fact that my job was to represent what Liberace did best, and that was playing the piano," he said. "That was a challenge I was happy to accept."

Fortenberry auditioned for the movie by sending producers photos of his hands and video of him playing piano. He later flew to Los Angeles and met with director Steven Soderbergh, Douglas and others.

"When Michael Douglas and I held our hands out together, it looked like four of the same hand, and the director said, 'Perfect,'" Fortenberry recalls. "And that's when they took me out for a ring fitting."

McNeely and Fortenberry want their McKendree act to reflect their personal efforts to embrace today's fast-changing world and face the future with a positive attitude.

"We're getting older," McNeely said. "We can't stop it. You just have to keep that positiveness inside you."

At a glance

What: "Singin' and Swingin'" variety show and fundraiser

Where: Hettenhausen Center for the Arts at McKendree University in Lebanon

When: 7 p.m. Friday (pre-show with Mark Gifford and Rusty Lucy at 6:30)

Admission: $25

Beneficiary: Lebanon First United Methodist Church

Tickets: Visit www.thehett.com, call the box office at 618-537-6863 or purchase at the door

Information: Call Susan Meister at 616-537-6622 or email to office@lebanonmethodist.org

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