REVIEW: Tenderly Rosemary Clooney Musical, New Wimbledon Theatre ✭✭✭

Tenderly Rosemary Clooney Musical

Tenderly The Rosemary Clooney Musical
New Wimbledon Time and Leisure Studio,
6th September 2017
3 Stars
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Rosemary Clooney is an unusual choice of singer to make the central point of a back-catalogue musical about a life in showbusiness (and, yes, she was the real-life aunt of actor George).  She is really not that familiar over here, and probably best known for playing opposite Bing Crosby in the 1954 Irving Berlin blockbuster success, ‘White Christmas', a film that continues to charm and beguile fractious families yuletide in, yuletide out, soothing and calming the tense nerves of people trying unsuccessfully to live up to Hollywood's standards of Norman Rockwell domestic picturesqueness.  And that is perhaps one of the attractions of this show: we get to draw nearer to a central pillar of the myth of contentment that we tell ourselves on an annual basis, hoping – possibly – that one day it just might all come true.

Well, what this biographically oriented work has to tell us is that for Rosemary Clooney herself, it did, and it didn't.  Like many hard-working, hard-drinking people of her age, she slalomed her way through the twists and turns of alcoholism and pill-popping dependency for decades, always denying there was any problem, until it all started to unravel in a most unprofitable way: her gorgeous voice, her ticket to stardom and riches, began to come apart, and with it, her grip on real life.  Mental breakdown followed; recognition and acceptance came next; and, finally, the painful process of facing up to what changes needed to be made in order to put her life back together again.  A very familiar tale.

Tenderly Rosemary Clooney MusicalWhat makes this play a little different is the approach taken by the twin authors, Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman.  Although their background is in musical theatre (‘Sleepy Hollow – A Musical Tale', ‘How I Became A Pirate' and a clutch of other children's stories, for which they jointly share the writing of book, music and lyrics), for this work they have embraced a much stricter discipline of writing a play… with music.  There is a framing device: Clooney (Katie Ray) is in that idyllic refuge most beloved of distressed Hollywoodites, a sanatorium.  There, she undergoes a textbook interrogation by a standard-issue therapist (Fed Zanni).  Along the way, she revisits a goodly number of her most popular hits: and there is a small band at the rear of the intimate stage to accompany her.  The doctor joins in too, from time to time, occasionally getting his ‘own' number.  The talking – and singing, and dancing (choreography by Chi-San Howard) – therapy does the trick.  And that, pretty much, is that in a tidily written two-hander.

But along this rather predictable route, there is a great fun of seeing the two actors taking these principal roles also assuming very many others; a snappy lighting change (thanks to Ali Hunter's meticulous design) is usually all they get to switch characters, although sometimes there is a minor costume alteration (the overall design is by Anna Yates).  Simon Holt accompanies everything with his capably idiomatic band (sound by Chris Drohan).  It's all very smartly organised by the director, Tania Azevedo, to whom relative newcomer of a producer Joseph Hodges has turned to bring this ambitious and challenging work to the stage.  It's a tricky act to pull off, but there are signs that its heart is in the right place and as the run progresses it will probably gain in assurity and fluency.  As things were on press night, there was a rather methodical feel to the evening.  Until, that is, the crucial dramatic event of Clooney's breakdown arrived – shortly before the interval, and then the play sprang into real life.  Suddenly, we could not predict the course of scenes nor the tread of lines.  The second act benefitted enormously from this theatrical interest, and as a result the overall impact of the play improved greatly.

Tenderly Rosemary Clooney MusicalSo much of the success of the work rides on the two performers.  Here, the casting has given us two interesting people, who bring engaging qualities to the production, if not always ones which seem to fit most readily.  In the lead, Ray bears an astonishing resemblance; but it is not Clooney she recalls, but rather – and emphatically – Grace Kelly.  She sings a great deal better than Miss Kelly ever could, but her voice – again – reminds us more of a combination of Dinah Shore laced with prodigious Judy Garland vibrato, especially in the most expressive moments.  So, in other words, we don't get an impersonation of Rosemary Clooney, but rather a creation of a character who in some ways resembles several different personalities of her era.  Similarly, in the role of the Doctor, Zanni is also asked to make us believe he is either Mrs Clooney, the mother, or even Frank Sinatra, the boozing companion, or Jose Ferrer, the philandering husband, and he has to create many more parts besides, most of whom he does not match in age, gender, physique or in pretty much anything other than mood.  This is great fun to observe, but it is a little bit unclear as to whether this is being done to make a point, or just out of economic convenience.

Now, a further treat is handed out to us in the form of two songs – one in each half of the show – which are not standards of the singer's career, but are in fact entirely new works written for the occasion.  And I will defy anybody attending this show to spot which of the songs they are.  There are some lesser known early numbers by the singer included here, and even the hit parade material of her later years is not necessarily widely known to today's theatregoing audience.  The programme will give you the answer.  And when you discover for yourselves what magnificent songs they are, you will – I'm sure – want to see and hear a great deal more from this extremely impressive team.  Having championed and spearheaded the launch of this new writing, perhaps ATG will feel emboldened to mount productions of more of the work of Vogt and Friedman.  We are long overdue a good look at it.

Until 23 September 2017

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