by Rob Lester
When you come from the world of theatre (Taboo, Mamma Mia!, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Dance of the Vampires, all on Broadway) but are also at home in the world of cabaret, maybe it's not surprising that the two worlds inform each other when doing a tribute to a legendary singer. In her new show about Rosemary Clooney, Liz McCartney reads from her subject's published frank autobiographies (This for Remembrance and Girl Singer) to anchor the show in authenticity. "I didn't want this to be a normal 'cabaret' piece, like 'Liz McCartney Sings the Hits of Rosemary Clooney' and then just talk about myself and how these songs affected me. And, by the same token, I didn't want it to be a small version of a 'jukebox musical' with me playing Rosemary. So it's sort of a combination." Taking on the legend of a singer acclaimed for her musicality and rich talent is quite a different task than playing pitch-challenged Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir, one of Liz's regional credits that also include Pirates! at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
Liz's fascination with and respect for Rosemary Clooney's life and career grew as she prepared for the show. She never saw the singing star perform in person but family members did, and she remembers hearing about that and liking the old records and watching the perennial movie musical White Christmas. But she didn't know more than the tip of the musical iceberg until a few years ago. Reading about Rosemary's less-than-rosy life - from a childhood where parents came and went to her adult sea of personal troubles leading to a nervous breakdown in the 1960s and then bravely coming back - was a revelation and an inspiration. Liz couldn't see just putting that aside and doing some kind of "And then she recorded ... " show. "I wanted people to be as moved by the story of her life as I was and I think they have been so far," she says of the hybrid high-energy Rosemary and Time that has two more performances in its current run. They are back to back on Monday, March 31 at 7 pm and 9 pm at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Café on Theatre Row, also known as West 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. "Even though I say a few lines as [Rosemary] for clarity, I didn't want people to think of this as an impersonation show, which is why sometimes I quote from the book and sometimes I say things that she said in concert or in interviews and then I read some facts for historical accuracy."
The warts-and-all autobiographies cover far more than the usual rise to fame tales, although they're in there, too - struggling for a break, disappointments, auditions, "almosts", meeting and working with big stars of mid-20th century show business. In between the professional highs and lows are the personal highs and lows (and woes and beaus). Liz's show covers a lot of ground in a packed hour. There's the first chapter of the Clooney career as sister act, then going solo and getting a chance to sing with Frank Sinatra because an established star at the record company hated the proposed song. Pianist/ musical director Ray Fellman steps in as Sinatra, and there's a lot of energy on the stage with bass player Bill Ellison and percussionist Greg Landes, the other musical partners for this song-filled tribute that evokes the show business temperature of the times.
Clooney, mother of five, whose up-and-down marriage to fiery actor-director Jose Ferrer crashed and burned before she did, had a lot on her plate as she also toured, recorded regularly, appeared in films, radio and TV, including, for a while, her own TV variety show. Liz comments, "Rosemary tried to have the 'fairy tale' life: movie star, TV star, recording artist, wife and mother. I learned out why she was out of the public eye for awhile. She was spread so thin that even she didn't know who she was."
One champion of this show and the performer is the man who happily booked it, Phil Geoffrey Bond, also a director, producer and writer. "The first time I saw Liz McCartney was the night before Taboo closed. I sat in the fourth row with my partner Dallas, and as she belted out 'Talk Amongst Yourselves,' I grabbed Dallas's knee hard and said, 'We must get to know her! A little while later I was producing and directing Women on Stage at the Lucille Lortel Theatre with Liz Callaway, BJ Crosby and Barbara Walsh, and we needed a fourth dynamite performer to round out the evening. I called Miss Liz, she graciously accepted, and the rest is history." He also worked with her in his days at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre where she performed her cabaret act with the same director and musical director she is currently collaborating with, and where she was part of tributes to Nancy LaMott and Joni Mitchell. "Not only is she a dynamic, smart, brilliant performer with one of the best voices in New York, she's also hilarious, down to earth, generous and giving of her time - and she has two kids! ... she's an absolute joy to have around."
In response to a question about avoiding the pitfalls of cabaret acts tributing musical icons that skim the surface, feel like gushing fan club meetings, cartoon or ghostly characterizations, or that hijack the material in a self-serving way, Liz's answer is frank and thoughtful. "To be honest I haven't seen too many tribute shows. I just knew I didn't want to be too worshipful and paint an inaccurate picture of her. And again, I didn't want to put on the blonde wig - I actually had one made - and be her."
Liz sought perspective and first-hand knowledge from a variety of sources. "Everyone had their own stories and memories. Even people who knew her casually had stories, because she made an impact on everyone she met." Liz did her homework gladly but diligently. "I think I watched about 60 hours of TV specials, concerts and The Rosemary Clooney Show.' " Feedback has included comments that she evokes the star's sound, presence and warmth remarkably in many moments. "Any aspects that I have from Rosemary came about by watching and listening. It was very much like approaching a theater role, because even though we have a few aspects of our voices that are similar, we come from different parts of the country so we have a few different vowel sounds and she has natural breathy sensuality to her voice that I had to work on. She also pulls away on some notes for dramatic effect that I would just barrel through - so that took work, too."
The show, which doesn't skimp on comedy, visuals (a few props, costume changes) or staged musical numbers, had an early script Liz wrote that felt more like a musical history lesson. Her director Kelley McKinnon, whose background is Shakespearean, helped shape it into the tapestry it is now. She also enlarged the participation of Marcy McGuigan who is now in the show as a sort of jack of all trades. "'Let's have Marcy pop out and say that,' my director would keep suggesting as we developed the piece." Liz agreed and says of the chameleon-like performer, "She plays percussion and she sings and has done several roles in Charles Busch pieces, so when you have someone that versatile and crazy, you have to use it." In addition to various comic bits, Marcy joins Liz for the well-remembered duet "Sisters" from White Christmas as that film's (dubbed) co-star Vera-Ellen and portrays real-life sister Betty Clooney, plus Rose Marie, Helen O'Connell and Margaret Whiting (co-stars for years in the touring "4 Girls 4" concerts).
Though Liz became quite the Clooney scholar and is clearly serious and dedicated, she's not a rabid "Cloonatic" who's maniacal about every detail. "I realized I could embody Rosemary and still be true to myself." Attending a recent performance, I overheard audience members who'd come as fans of either or both singers - Clooney and/or McCartney - who agreed she did succeed indeed.
Rosemary and Time will be performed at 7 pm and 9 pm downstairs at the West Bank Café, 407 West 42nd Street (Laurie Beechman Theater). Cover charge is $15 and the minimum is $15 (there is a full food and drink menu). Call 212-695-6909 for reservations. The venue's schedule of events can be found at www.westbankcafe.com/theater/schedule. Further information on Liz at www.LizMcCartney.com.