The board of directors at the Theatre Factory in Trafford has a reputation of not shying away from challenging productions, and this group has the pluckiness, daring, and foresight to bring theater to Pittsburgh that not only entertains but teaches and inspires as well. According to this organization’s philosophy, performing plays and musicals for the sake of performance is one thing (this they do extremely well), but choosing entertaining plays and musicals to bring to the Pittsburgh cultural scene that continues to draw diverse audiences is quite another.
The Theatre Factory once again hits some pretty high notes by bringing Rosemary Clooney back to larger-than-life status with their performance of playwrights/composers Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman’s musical Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical.
This two person trip down a “memorable lane” takes the audience on a 30+ year journey of Clooney, her rise to stardom, her relationships, her very public battle with drugs, her eventual fall from grace, and then her recovery and triumphant return to perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 1998.
Most of the real “meat” of the story takes place in Clooney’s psychiatrist’s office after she is committed to a sanitarium following her 1968 nervous breakdown on a Las Vegas stage caused by a plague of relationship, money, and drug problems. The musical bounces back and forth between Clooney’s issues with her mother, her sister Betty, husband Jose Ferrer, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bobby Kennedy, and Dante DiPaolo, including the music taken from the 20+ albums she recorded during her life.
Breanna Deutsch (Ariel in Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Isle in Spring Awakening), an energetic and spirited performer who hits all the right notes, portrays the troubled starlet Clooney, takes each of the singer’s indiscretions and demons, and then, in a most smooth and flawless performance, ties them into the lyrics and musical score that made her famous.
Tenderly director Katya Shaffer is able to take Vogt and Friedman’s original intent of showing the “meaning behind the music” that audiences in the 50’s and 60’s could not have imagined. In an era of jazz and pop music where performance, style, and glamour were “the thing,” Shaffer and Deutsch pull the cover off what many would have thought to be simply entertaining “songs,” which, in reality, contained the very real pain that Clooney was feeling.
In fact, Ms. Deutsch is able to turn those upbeat and romantic songs of Clooney’s into lyrics that are the script of a woman in distress. The show brings to mind the same issues that Monroe, Davis, Wood, Mansfield, and Elvis experienced. Audiences failed to see angst and humanity, choosing rather to see a “flawless” performer with a buttery voice who rubbed elbows with the Rat Pack and the Kennedy’s. Duetsch is able to move the character of Clooney from insecurity to stardom and back again so briskly that it is no wonder Clooney experienced a meltdown. Deutsch brings this to life so realistically that even if the audience didn’t know of Rosemary Clooney, her life, and her music, will leave the theater feeling personally attached to her.
Toward the end of the play, Deutsch’s portrayal of Clooney makes you want to just put your arm around her and tell her “everything will be alright.” She is the quintessential example of the star who has everything but experiences a deep and dark emptiness in her life.
And that’s where her co-star, multi-purpose actor extraordinaire Jeremy Kuharcik (Billy Flynn – Chicago, Jitter – Musical of Musicals, Paul – Barefoot in the Park, and Bert – Mary Poppins) falls into this psychological journey. Kuharcik plays no less than 12 roles as he transforms from Clooney’s sister Betty to her husband Jose Ferrer to her friends and lovers Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dante DiPaolo. Not only does his role require him to impersonate of all of these characters, he must sing “in character” – performing entertaining duets with Deutsch. Kuharcik’s character transformation from one to another is a credit to his commitment to his craft. At the very end of the musical, when Clooney performs at the Hollywood Bowl in her comeback performance, Kuharcik (the psychiatrist) pays her a visit as an older, tattered, and physically broken friend. This is Shaffer’s intended direction which provides the audience a timeline meant to highlight the many decades of Clooney’s relevance.
A really special treat in this musical is the trio of talented musicians, band leader Kirk Howe (keyboards), Jesse Walls (percussion), and Mike Mara (bass), who provide the soundtrack that is reminiscent of the jazz and pop beat that underscored Clooney’s songs. (As well as Crosby and Sinatra). Music director Kirk Howe and stage manager Alicia DiPaola, and their assistants, are on point in providing the audience with the authenticity that is necessary in this production.
Finally, Clooney aficionados are treated to versions of such favorites as “Mambo Italiano,” “Come-on-a-My House,” “Botcha-A-Me,” “Count Your Blessings,” “Hey There,” “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair,” “Tenderly,” and 15 other hits that provides a refreshing walk down memory lane.
Tenderly also shows how prolific Clooney was in her heyday and how she never stopped, causing her breakdown. Her successes created her own Sisyphus character, who, without the help of friends such as Sinatra, might have steamrolled over her and ended her life.
Tenderly is a lively and entertaining musical that is a tribute to Clooney’s Phoenix-like resolve.
The show runs through May 14th and you can find ticketing information at www.thetheatrefactory.com