The world premiere of “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical” reveals a tunefully appealing dose of nostalgia in search of a shaper narrative.
Written by Cincinnati-based composers Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman (“Green Gables”) and produced by the Human Race Theatre Company at the Victoria Theatre, “Tenderly” tolerably tackles the triumphs and pitfalls that framed the career of the legendary singer-actress from Maysville, Kentucky. Widely known for the cheeky hit “Come On-A My House” (among 15 songs featured in this one-act), Rosemary rose to fame in the 1954 film “White Christmas” and several TV variety shows of the era, but her rocky upbringing (she regarded her grandmother’s house as home), relationship woes (she married and divorced Tony and Oscar winner Jose Ferrer twice, a union which produced five children) and personal destruction (pill addiction) are the key compelling factors attempting to propel this project past mere jukebox musical thrills.
Vogt and Freidman introduce Rosemary at age 40 in 1968, a month after she heard the shots which killed Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. While performing at a Reno, Nevada club she had a nervous breakdown which led to her hospitalization and eight years of psychoanalysis therapy. Oddly, Vogt and Freidman’s decision to begin the show with Rosemary’s frazzled, mean-spirited breakdown (which occurs while she happily sings “Come On-A My House”) produces one of the most jarring, disconcerting openings I have seen. I don’t doubt the moment’s authenticity, but it cruelly pulls the rug out from under the audience when the musical’s tone is freshly gestating. In addition to a revamped opening, the material would be better served as a one-woman outing. Rosemary’s amiable doctor doubles as various individuals in her life, but it’s an occasionally distracting, needlessly cutesy device that hinders her thoughts being front and center. I’m instantly reminded of how well the Human Race’s 2009 production of “Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow” flowed as Ethel’s experiences vividly resonated with greater depth in her own words.
Despite navigating through conceptual shortcomings and appearing roughly 10 years too young, Muse Machine alumna Tory Ross (Broadway’s “9 to 5: The Musical” and “Cry-Baby”) wonderfully excels as Rosemary. Delicately guided by director Kevin Moore and admirably supported by Scott Stoney, the vibrant, funny Ross warmly embraces Rosemary’s lighthearted persona and grows believably tortured as her downward spiral and resentment of success takes shape. Most importantly, she delivers terrific vocals. Instead of outright impersonation, Ross astutely adopts the legend’s familiar phrasing and lyric-driven flair, particularly delivering marvelous renditions of “When October Goes,” “Hey There,” “Mambo Italiano,” “Slow Boat to China,” “Count Your Blessing Instead of Sheep” (beautifully lit by John Rensel in a soft pink hue), and the gorgeously lush title tune. The final numbers, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” and “From This Moment On,” are given upbeat jazz treatments, expertly performed by music director Scot Woolley’s orchestra, perfectly evoking Rosemary’s breezy technique.
“Tenderly” hasn’t reached its potential, but hearing Ross execute some of the timeless standards in the Great American Songbook is a significant plus.
“Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical” continues through March 4 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Performances are Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. The show is performed in 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $40-$83. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com