MTC’s “Tenderly – the Rosemary Clooney Musical” Is a Great Way to Return to Live Theater

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By Karen Isaacs

MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) in Norwalk is back to presenting musicals after a year of mostly one person plays. It’s started the new season with a fine production of Tenderly The Rosemary Clooney Musical through Oct. 3.

Some of us of a certain age are familiar with Clooney from her hit songs of the 1950s and later her career as a top-notch jazz singer. Younger people may mainly know her through the movie White Christmas or as George Clooney’s aunt.

This two-person play written by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman is set in 1968, right after Clooney had a well-publicized and very public breakdown on stage in Reno. She checked herself into the psychiatric unit of an LA hospital and the play uses her sessions with her psychiatrist as the backdrop for telling her story. Don’t think that this means just a lot of talking; this show is full of the music that is associated with Clooney.

You’ll hear fine renditions of her hit songs from her hit songs, “Hey There,” “Tenderly,” to “Come On-A My House,” (which Clooney hated) and many more. Act one closes with the touching “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?”

The downside of the musical being set in 1968 is that last part of career becomes a footnote at the very end of the play. We never get to hear Clooney, the jazz singer.

Tenderly rises or falls on the casting of the two actors. In this case director Kevin Connors has chosen well.  Susan Haefner plays Clooney, a role she has undertaken multiple times. In fact, I saw her performance at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford in early 2020.

Haefner captures Clooney’s sound and look without trying to imitate her. Her singing reflects Clooney’s warm tone and her lower register. She was not a typical soprano. What doesn’t always come across is her motherly instincts; she was responsible for taking care of her younger sister after her mother left Tennessee for California, and she had five children with actor/director Jose Ferrar.

Connor’s casting of John Treacy Egan as the psychiatrist (and other roles) was a very good selection. Egan has a fine voice and handles the switches in characters well. Throughout the two act piece, as Clooney recalls incidents in her life, Egan takes on the persona of various people from her sister Betty and Clooney’s mother to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Jose Ferrar. Most of the time he carries these off easily. The “Sisters” number where Haefner and he replicate the famous song from White Christmas is particularly effective as is his portrayal of Crosby. He’s less successful with Ferrar.

Initially some may find the transitions from doctor to other characters disconcerting, especially since the first ones are female characters.

Lindsay Fuori designed an effective set with art deco and mid-century modern touches. While the opening gown was great, some of Diane Vanderkroef’s costumes weren’t totally successful.

David Wolfson, music director, led an excellent three piece band that provided both fine accompaniment and solo work.

Director Connors prevents this from turning into a soap opera with movement and pacing.

Tenderly The Rosemary Clooney Musical is a great way to return to life theater. MTC is a small theater which has instituted a number of safety protocols, including requiring audience members to show proof of vaccination.

The show runs through Oct. 3. For tickets visit MusicTheatreOfCT.com

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