“Tenderly” Plays the Hits and Plucks the Heartstrings

Kim Schroeder Long in Carnegie’s “Tenderly”

Review by Jack Crumley of Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical: The Carnegie

Carnegie audiences get to take a trip back in time this month and relive the career of a local gal who made it big, fell hard, then bounced back. Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical premiered in 2012 as a collaboration between the Victoria Theatre Association and the Human Race Theatre in Dayton, Ohio. It was then expanded for Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park in 2014, and now it has audiences singing along in Northern Kentucky.

The show starts with Clooney (played by Kim Schroeder Long) having some kind of emotional difficulty during a performance in Reno, which leads to her spending time at a hospital under psychiatric care. In the role of The Doctor is Allen Middleton, but he also takes on other people in Clooney’s life as she starts to talk about her humble beginnings in Maysville, Kentucky, then her early singing career. The audience sees Clooney’s successes, romances, and regrets; everything that leads up to what was a nervous breakdown in 1968 Reno, Nevada. Much of the reliving involves songs Clooney’s known for,

including “Hey There,” “Count Your Blessings,” “Tenderly” (obviously), and “Mambo Italiano.” It closes with her career on the rebound and Clooney feeling much more stable in life.

Kim Schroeder Long has the unenviable task of playing a celebrity people have known for decades, but she also has to reproduce her work on stage. Long has a tremendously talented voice, and her character range grows as Clooney’s life begins to fall apart. The song selection ties nicely into points in Clooney’s life. “Count Your Blessings” is a sweet moment as she and her sister, Betty, dream of a better life. “Botch-A-Me” is the time when she had a brief fling with her dance instructor, Dante DiPaolo. Long emotes beautifully with “Are You in Love Again?” Act I ends with the somber “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?” as Rosie’s addiction to pills and her marriage to Jose Ferrer begin to be too much for her. When the audience is finally brought to the moment in Reno when everything comes crashing down, Long plays an intoxicated Clooney trying to sing “Come On-A My House” and also yell at the crowd while stumbling on stage. It’s a role that builds in intensity, and Long doesn’t show signs of weakness or fatigue.

If Long’s work on stage is sustained and focused, Middleton’s work is fleeting and scattershot, and that’s by design in the script. In their opening scene as doctor and patient, Rosemary starts to flash back to advice she got from a priest, and without warning, Middleton goes from The Doctor to this Irish holy man. That change in voice and the way he carries himself–along with a subtle shift in lighting–are the only cues the audience gets that we’ve flashed back to a different part of Clooney’s life. Middleton’s character is constantly shifting from a pearl-clutching mother to a movie studio executive, from a cool, supportive Bing Crosby to a friendly, but concerned Frank Sinatra. Early on, Middleton is playing younger sister Betty Clooney and he and Long deliver a great rendition of “Sisters.” It really sets the tone for what to expect from Middleton on stage for the rest of the show. The shame in having to play so many different characters is that the actual role of “The Doctor” never really develops a sense of intimacy with Clooney. I would have liked to have seen the Doctor played more tenderly (if you will), because he’s the one who’s there for her most personal moments and important realizations.

The stage setup by Tyler Gabbard is one of Carnegie’s more simple designs. It comes off as a slightly mod living room/office that gives Clooney and The Doctor a place to sit, a couple elevated areas for Clooney to perform “on stage” or “in a booth,” and a wall of pictures of the real Rosemary with famous friends like Danny Kaye. That wall serves as a constant reminder of how big a star this girl from Maysville was. By contrast, what happens on stage shows the audience that this big star was still a human being with fears and faults who was living this life in the spotlight.

Because it’s a musical, there’s a live band on stage in the back, and it really adds to the production. Music Director Steve Goers on piano, Justin Dawson on bass, and Michael Johns on drums is all that’s needed to bring back memories of all of Clooney’s famous songs. It lets Long’s gifted voice really shine through.

I myself was not around for Ms Clooney’s rise to fame, but the vast majority of the audience for Sunday’s matinee was, and I saw many people nodding their heads along with “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and coming just shy of everyone clapping in time with the big closing number “This Ole House.” Tenderly works as both a nostalgic musical revue and also a pull-back-the-curtain look at the life of a local legend.

Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical plays at The Carnegie Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees now through November 19. Tickets are available here.

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