Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 21, 2020

Review: Playhouse on Park, Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical

Playhouse on Park, Hartford, CT
through February 2, 2020
by Lisa Covi

On a wintry day, Playhouse on Park seems set for the pedestrian experience of a musical matinee. A bus rolls up with a mainstay of theater support – the group audience, which enters a stylishly decorated black-box set for an afternoon of Rosemary Clooney's “adult bio-musical” by co-authors Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. Named after her 1951 hit “Tenderly,” one would expect a similarly haunting story of her struggles with mental illness in the face of a rags-to-riches career during the waning days of pre-rock ‘n roll Hollywood. Then something surprising happens. Between vaguely familiar performances of Come On-a My House, Hey There, and Straighten Up and Fly Right, materializes an extraordinary and intimate production.

A cast of two actors populate and embody the principal family members and stars of Clooney's universe. Around the satellite of Susan Haefner’s Clooney, her costar Samuel Lloyd Jr. alternately plays a psychiatrist, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Jose Ferrer, in addition to sister Betty and her mother. At one point, he portrays her therapist reenacting key moments in Clooney's life and career. Lloyd even pulls off a rendition of White Christmas' duet Sisters complete with choreography and fans made out of patient file folders. Lloyd is in fine voice as male and female.

The musical backdrop, under the director of Robert Tomasulo, is performed with a three- piece band occasionally visible behind the picture window of the set. Haefner's bearing and vocal phrasing provides the lush contours of Clooney's passage from star-struck ingénue through marriage and family years and the return from hospitalization and revival of her career. The arc of the star's story sounds familiar, but Clooney's unique grit, humor, and unprepossessing work ethic emerge in concert with vignettes provided by Lloyd's cast of supporting characters. The one-room office set is lit from all angles, providing a wide variety of indoor and outdoor scenes. The costumes and props are simple but evocative.

As with many biographical dramatizations, the second part of the script fails to match the substance of the events leading to the climax. As a story of healing, self-acceptance and realization, the play struggles with the denouement since the conquest of suffering and addiction is rarely as compelling and straightforward as Clooney’s characters in movie musicals. At the talkback, Haefner explained that the authors are more eager to license the production for widespread availability than to bring it to New York (still a possibility). Another note for Broadway is that the casting seems slightly mismatched. Although he brings an impressively wide range of characterizations to the role, Lloyd does not fully equal Haefner's highly dynamic stage presence.

Photo by Meredith Longo
This loving exposition of her talent and heart sticks closely to Clooney’s biographies as source. Her brother Nicky has expressed a desire to extend the influence of her existence and joins her family and foundation endorsing this work. This production stirs our souls with the vibrancy of vocal performances and reminds our conscience of the private challenges public celebrities face at the depths and summits of their careers.