Presented by Ensemble Theatre Company. At the New Vic, Sat., Oct. 9. Runs through October 24.
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes one of the oldest riddles in show biz. “Practice!” is the classic punchline. In Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical, now playing at the Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic, the question is a little different, and it is asked up front by Nina Ball and François-Pierre Couture’s gorgeous scenic and lighting design. “How do you get to the Hollywood Bowl?” asks Tenderly of its real-life heroine Rosemary Clooney, and the answer this time is “Through rehab, by way of Reno.”
Co-stars Linda Purl and David Engel both deliver excellent, multifaceted performances. Jenny Sullivan’s direction keeps the show moving fluidly through Clooney’s checkered past as seen from the perspective of her therapist, a certain Dr. Monk, played, like all the other parts in the show except for Clooney, by Engel. Interspersed among Clooney’s various revelations about how and why she became addicted to pills and alcohol, we get a chance to hear Purl, an outstanding singer, and Engel, a gifted mimic, enact various significant moments and encounters throughout the singer’s extraordinary career. Engel gives us creditable versions of Frank Sinatra; Bing Crosby; José Ferrer; and even Rosie’s sister, Betty, and mother, Marie. Purl, for her part, gamely renders Clooney young and old, optimistic and depressed, clear-headed and spaced-out, all as the script requires.
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And that’s where this production gets hung up — on what playwrights Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman ask their Rosie to do. Theater depends for its impact on thoughtful, considered dialogue steeped in innuendo and indirection. In Tenderly, the characters all seem to share a tedious burden of exposition. Everyone, from the therapist Dr. Monk to Sinatra, Crosby, and Ferrer, appears only to enunciate something from Rosemary Clooney’s Wikipedia entry.
Stay away from the pills, warns Sinatra, more than once. Did we really need Old Blue Eyes to see that?
The appeal of such bio-plays, especially when they offer opportunities for talented performers like Purl and Engel to show how much they can do — harmonize, soliloquize, and a little soft shoe — is clear. But is this what we came back to the theater for? I respect the entire team organization at Ensemble Theatre Company, and I only speak for myself when I ask this, but could we possibly have something more urgent? I look forward to hearing from you, Santa Barbara theatergoers. See Tenderly, and let us know what you think.