Size is everything. The Tempe Center for the Arts’ first major event Saturday night, a black-tie gala culminating in a concert by jazz singer Natalie Cole, proved as much.
Though it was an elegant, opulent affair — a sold-out soiree with cocktails and seafood overflowing and East Valley pooh-bahs schmoozing from room to room — the tone was, more than anything, relaxed and intimate. Almost modest, even.
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That’s fitting for the $66.5 million center, whose eye-candy appeal, overlooking Tempe Town Lake from its south bank, belies a more humble focus: to give local performing arts groups, like Tempe’s Childsplay and Mesa’s Citrus Valley Playhouse, a medium-size option in a Valley brimming with larger venues.
Cole’s performance, in the Tempe Center’s 600-seat mainstage theater, was intimacy personified.
Backed by a seven-piece band, Cole — the daughter of crooner Nat King Cole — christened the space with a slinky, almost effortlessly coquettish cover of the Otis Blackwell standard “Fever,” snapping to the beat and cooing like Peggy Lee by way of Sade.
The theater’s almost stubby design, with just 13 rows of seats on the floor and four and three rows on the two balconies above, dramatically pulls the audience close to the stage, while the mahogany walls surrounding seem to hug the audience even tighter. The effect, while just shy of claustrophobic in the full house, lent Cole’s performance the laid-back, enchanting vibe of a jazz supper club show. (Without, of course, the clinking of silverware.)
Acoustically, it’s hard to gauge a performance space when amplification is involved, but the Tempe Center’s theater was near-perfectly transparent, even on the upper balcony. That’s compared to the slightly bright 1,600-seat Ikeda Theater at the Mesa Arts Center and the often maddeningly muddy amplified sound at Gammage Auditorium, the 3,000-seat Frank Lloyd Wright creation less than a mile south of the TCA.
Six songs into the just over an hour-long concert, before launching into her best-known song, a posthumous duet with her prerecorded father on his ballad “Unforgettable,” Cole offered her almost perfunctory appraisal of the hall.
“This is a really beautiful theater,” she said — echoing the evening’s earlier huzzahs and platitudes from East Valley notables including Rep. Harry Mitchell, D.-Ariz., and Mesa real estate mogul Michael Pollack.
“I think it’s a gorgeous facility,” Pollack said, “and it’s obvious they didn’t skimp on details.”
A drummer with his own soul-rock band, Pollack was quick to add: “I look forward to someday playing here.”
Prior to Cole’s concert (and some pre-show back-patting and podium patter by Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman and Councilwoman Barb Carter, a longtime advocate for the center), attendees noshed on buffets in the Lakeside banquet room and 200-seat studio theater — which had been repurposed, with black and deep red accents, to serve Asian foods — while small jazz and classical ensembles softly serenaded them and those milling about the sweeping, dramatic lobby and adjacent visual arts gallery.
After the show, attendees were treated to dessert and, over Town Lake, a fireworks display.
It was hard to find anyone in attendance with something bad to say about Tempe’s new arts center. (Though Tempe Symphony Orchestra conductor Dick Strange could be heard further complaining that he wanted an 800-seat mainstage theater.)
Even George Nash, a volunteer usher from Mesa who spent his largely lonely evening guarding the upper balcony entrance and gazing on the reveling attendees below, gave a thumbs-up.
“This is a pretty unusual facility,” he said. “I’ve been ushering around the Valley for many years. Everything they’re able to do here, and the setting, you can’t beat.”
Today, from noon to 5 p.m., the center will hold a free open-house for the general public, with performances and refreshments.
Tempe Center for the Arts
WHAT: Grand Opening Family Day
WHEN: Noon to 5 p.m. today
WHERE: 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway
INFORMATION: (480) 350-2882 or www.tempe.gov/tca