Tenderly is written by the Cincinnati team of Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman, previously best known for their musical Anne of Green Gables. The story of Rosemary's life is framed within the context of therapy sessions with a psychiatrist following a nervous breakdown in 1968. Through their discussions, she outlines both the career successes (several #1 hits, the film of White Christmas) that brought fame and money, as well as her many trials and tribulations, including a turbulent marriage to José Ferrer and drug addiction. The show premiered in Dayton a few years ago and was said to be in very rough shape at that time. The authors have wisely retooled the piece, both expanding and improving various elements. It's now a solid, entertaining, and somewhat enlightening show, and a perfect fit for the more intimate Thompson Shelterhouse at Playhouse.
As Rosemary chronicles her life to her doctor, the audience sees glimpses of those moments through flashbacks, which include many of the songs that made her famous. Balancing out the drama is a great deal of comedy in the storytelling, thanks to using one actor (who primarily plays the Doctor) to play all of the other people in Rosemary's life, male and female, to great effect and without feeling too campy. The story also doesn't feel like a by-the-numbers telling of her life, instead successfully using the therapy sessions to shine some light on the real person and letting the history of the singer come out little by little. The songs, including "Come On-A My House," "Sisters," "Blue Skies," "Botch-A-Me," "Hey There," and "This Ole House," invoke nostalgic memories and bring welcome energy to the piece. While many of the songs serve as performance numbers, others comment on the story and characters to varying degrees of effectiveness. The best example is "Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair," which is a great encapsulation of Clooney's feelings about her floundering career and her passť style of singing (at the time). The final moments of the musical show her resurrected career as a jazz singer, ending on a positive note, though one which feels a bit abrupt and contrived dramatically.
Broadway vet Susan Haefner embodies Rosemary Clooney's voice and mannerisms without ever feeling like an impersonation, and performs the songs with great skill. She aptly conveys the spunky, tortured-though-emotionally-aloof personality of the singer, and is impressive with her acting choices and ability. As the Doctor, Michael Marotta, last seen at Playhouse in Cabaret, demonstrates wonderful versatility and talent in portraying the various people in Rosemary's past, including her sister, mother, José Ferrer, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby, to name just a few.
Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison directs Tenderly and supplies a quick pace, some effective comedy, and smooth transitions. Because the piece moves back and forth between serious moments, comical anecdotes, hopeful longings, and showbiz performances, it could be a bit manic in a less skilled director's hands, but Robison supplies the appropriate tone throughout and makes sure the action is played to all three sides of the house in this oddly shaped thrust theater space. Dee Anne Bryll provides several numbers with her usual wonderfully well-suited choreography, with cute and period appropriate dances for the two performers. Music director Scot Woolley leads a first-rate three-piece jazz combo in musical support. Set designer Bill Clarke provides a simple yet effective unit piece for the space which conveys the Reno showroom where Rosemary had her public breakdown, as well as other performance venues. Phil Monat's effective lighting helps to present and define the setting for the therapy sessions well, and distinguish those moments from the flashbacks. The costumes by Bill Black are accurate to the era and attractive. There is clear sound plus a few nice audio effects from sound designer Jeremy J. Lee.
Tenderly isn't the type of musical that ignites passion or deep introspection, but it is a pleasing and interesting show in its improved state, especially for Cincinnatians and those who are fans of Rosemary Clooney. Playhouse in the Park provides a worthwhile production with a strong cast and, thanks to the recent extension, there are additional opportunities to catch the show this winter.
Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Story continues at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park through January 4, 2015. For tickets and more information, call (513) 421-3888 or visit www.cincyplay.com.