Tenderly, The Rosemary Clooney Musical, by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. Music and Lyrics by various. Directed by Tim Fort.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Samuel Lloyd, Jr. as Dr. Monk, Susan Haefner as Rosemary Clooney; photo: Tim Fort
"Now, I think, there'd be a price for ambition, too."
Clooney (Susan Haefner) and Crosby (Samuel Lloyd, Jr.); photo: Tim Fort
I find it difficult to accept that the hero of almost anyone's life would be Bing Crosby. The crooner who fathered son after son with a drunken wife, who played around a lot and who finally married a woman barely out of her teens doesn't seem the likely choice for such a role. But he serves in that capacity in the story of singer Rosemary Clooney whose life seems to be more like a Kim Novak movie than like her own. An abandoned child with a younger sister, Clooney dragged herself up from impoverishment in Maysville, Kentucky to great fortune in Beverly Hills, California through her talent and her ability to stretch discretion to the upper limit.
On Weston Playhouse's second stage the story of Clooney, Crosby, Jose Ferrer and others in her life is being played by two terrific actors: Susan Haefner as Rosemary Clooney and Samuel Lloyd, Jr. as her psychiatrist, Doctor Monk, and as everyone else in her life who matters in the telling of this story: Clooney's mother, sister, husband, studio executive, Frank Sinatra, lover, friend, friend, friend.
Singing Stan Freeman's "Come-On-A My House" and a host of other hit songs connected with Clooney's career. Susan Haefner brings to life on the small stage of the Weston Rod and Gun Club, a woman cherished by her fans from her radio debut in 1945 through her death in 2002. Her life is played out in a series of sessions with her doctor who guides her through her life-story after abusing drugs and liquor has led her to a complete break-down and a hospitalization at the Betty Clooney Center for brain-injured young adults, a hospital she founded.
Betty Clooney (Samuel Lloyd, Jr.; photo: Tim Fort
It is the lengthy, half-voluntary stay that forms the inner framework for the play; it is the performance in Reno that precipitated her hospitalization and the triumphant career-defining concert at the Hollywood Bowl that frame the larger picture. But it is the deeper story of the years between childhood and maturity that showcase the woman and her work.
Samuel Lloyd, Jr., a local favorite and television personality, plays the doctor and just about everyone else who ever crossed paths with Clooney. Together they perform Irving Berlin's classic "Sisters" with Lloyd as Betty Clooney. Together they perform "Mambo Italiano" with Lloyd as Dante DePaolo, her lover who ultimately became her final husband. Together they croon as Bing Crosby and Clooney in "How About You" and he also joins her in "Sway" taking on the role of her husband Jose Ferrer. The amazing part of this actor's work is that he is brilliant in every single role he undertakes.
He is never the perfect mimic, but he is surely and completely every man he portrays. This is the finest performance I have ever seen by Sam Lloyd, Jr. and I turn from admirer into absolute fan with this show. His characters are pure and true and honest all by themselves and he is wonderful beside his perfect co-star.
Susan Haefner originated this role in Cincinnati just a few years ago and she now brings it home to a theater she has thrilled in the past with other roles. Her portrayal of a woman who has faced every disaster with a smile and a song until the song betrays her and smile dissolves is heart-wrenching and so very real. There isn't one single moment when she is not completely believable in this part.
Like her co-worker here she resembles Clooney less than she embodies her. She is a wonderful vocalist but only occasionally does she sound like the woman she plays. What doesn't matter at all is the mimicking of the woman. Instead it is the spirit and the style and the image of a graceful star that Haefner manages to create here. All of this becomes Rosemary Clooney. Imitation is not always the most flattering manner of presentation. Instead we have the acting of a person whose story needs to be heard. Haefner leaves you yearning for more and her final scene, as the later, jazz-great Clooney, is remarkably like what we hope to see.
Director Tim Fort must bear some responsibility for the finesse of this production, for the performances that fill the theater with a level of reality not usually achieved without fakery and imitation. I cannot stress too much the way these three theatrical people have created a Clooney and cohorts who encompass and surpass the originals in theatrical terms. The combination of Fort's vision and insight and the acting chops of Lloyd and Haefner along with her musical mastery of the material is a rare bit of perfect symmetry.
Jeffrey Lodin's perfect piano accompaniment, along with the members of the musical trio - John Convertino on bass and Andrew Gillum on drums - bring both fine sounds and strange echoes to the show. Barbara A. Bell's costumes evoke the periods and the personalities, Travis McHale's lighting helps move the play through its more subtle moments and Tanner Elker's sound design work is masterful. The set by Kristen Robinson is medically austere and the perfect physical setting for Clooney's past, present and future.
I had heard about this show, which is being produced all over the world now, but wasn't really prepared to enjoy it so thoroughly, to be moved and touched and delighted. I have a few favorite Clooney songs which didn't get performed, but I can live with that because what is on the Weston stage is so close to perfection. It should run for the rest of the summer. Cancel everything else and let it play as long as it can.
Susan Haefner and Jeffrey Lodin; photo: Tim Fort
Tenderly plays at the Weston Rod and Gun Club, 982 Route 100S, Weston, VT through August 5. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at westonplayhouse.org.