“Lost in the Wood”: A Bio-Musical in Search of Its Story

By Brooks Appelbaum

“Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical,” at Ivoryton Playhouse through November 13, opens with Clooney singing “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The song portends much of what is to come: “I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood/I know I could/always be good/ to one who’ll watch over me.” Clooney, bound by the all-too familiar demands of 1950’s domesticity and emotional dependence on a man, experienced a painful divide between her private troubles and her professional success. As written by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman, the musical intercuts Clooney’s spectacular singing career with sessions with a psychiatrist after what we would now call a psychotic break. The flatly narrative, as opposed to dramatic, nature of these sessions are ultimately the downfall of the piece. 

Kim Rachel Harris (Rosemary) and Michael Marotta (playing the psychiatrist and everyone else in Clooney’s life), along with director and choreographer Brian Feehan, must work hard to enliven a script that contains far too much talk and still falls short of evoking much psychological complexity in its title character. That they are able to create a pleasant evening of songs despite the creaky framing device speaks well of them all. 

In one of the show’s most gripping scenes—the first—we witness Rosemary breaking down in front of an audience that wants to hear only her biggest hit, “Come On a My House.” From there, we move to “Doc’s” office, where we learn that Clooney has committed herself as an in-patient to kick a serious drug addiction, begun during her tempestuous first marriage to Jose Ferrer.

At first grudgingly and then more trustingly, she unfolds the tale of her literally and emotionally impoverished childhood. After being shuffled amongst an alcoholic father, a neglectful mother, and various relatives, she and her sister Betty get their first break in 1945 as the “Clooney Sisters,” singing for $20 a week on the radio. From there, Clooney climbs quickly to the top of a career that encompassed not only radio, but also television, film, touring, and recording.

Song and dance numbers illustrate important moments in that career, and
in these more dramatic scenes, we are able to hear Kim Rachel Harris’s beautiful voice and enjoy her sparkling presence. Harris is terrific at shifting between the older, acerbic, wounded Clooney, and the youthfully glowing star. Both vocally and visually, she brings Clooney to life so that Clooney’s fans enjoy nostalgia and those unfamiliar with Clooney’s talent are enriched.

 Michael Marotta, too, expertly inhabits the many men in Clooney’s life: her kindly encouraging uncle; the alluring, womanizing Jose Ferrer, whom she married in 1953 and after five children and much angst, finally divorced in 1967; Dante Di Paolo, the dancing instructor, co-star, and lover whom she leaves for Ferrer and marries in late life; her good friend Bing Crosby, with whom she famously starred in “White Christmas”; Frank Sinatra who “always told it to [me] straight”; and Merv Griffin, who, along with Crosby, was instrumental in her late 1970’s comeback as a jazz singer.

Due to the play’s construction, however, Marotta must also play the important role of sister Betty, as well as Clooney’s mother, and here the requirements are just too great. In addition a distinct uneasiness pervades when the “Doc”—in the guise of Ferrer or Di Paolo, for instance—must passionately embrace and kiss Rosemary. One wonders why the playwrights weren’t willing to add a woman and a younger man to the cast to take on these important characters.

The scenic design (William Russell Stark) and lighting (Marcus Abbott) most often suggest a concert stage, and the show succeeds best as a concert. The band, onstage, is excellent, with Daniel Brandi as Musical Director and pianist, Matt McCauley on bass, and Connie Coghlan on drums. And Harris sings numerous lovely, classic ballads from the time: “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Tenderly,” “Hey There,” and “What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” among others. She also puts over some hot swing: “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and, as Clooney’s comeback number, “This Ole House.”

After all she’s suffered, original story or not, it’s nice to see her triumph.

“Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical” runs through November 13. Tickets are available by calling the Ivoryton Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org  (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.

By Brooks Appelbaum
Special to the Shoreline Times

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