Theater Review: Tenderly

Jan 24, 2019

Mary Teutsch as Rosemary Clooney in "Tenderly"
Credit Katherine Mumma / Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

The Civic Theatre’s current offering, Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical, is a different kind of theatrical experience than many of the juke-box musicals in recent years.

In Tenderly, the life of the artist is consistently linked to and shares the stage equally with the music that made her famous. As the show opens, we catch Clooney at her lowest moment. She has been institutionalized after an onstage nervous breakdown during a 1968 performance in Reno.

In an effort to come to terms with the reasons why her life and career have gone off the rails, Clooney shares her life story through a series of flashbacks, with her psychiatrist, played by Hal Hobson-Morse.

In the process, audiences are treated to more than twenty Clooney songs as well as an intimate look into the upbringing, career, loves, struggles and gritty recovery of one of America’s best-loved female vocalists of the Twentieth Century.

Mary Teutsch and Hal Hobson-Morse in "Tenderly"
Credit Katherine Mumma / Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

A major reason for the success of Tenderly is Mary Teutsch in the title role. Teutsch’s physical and vocal abilities serve her well throughout the evening. She seems relaxed and comfortable as she sways through her light up- beat pop hits as “Botch-A-Me” and “Mambo Italiano” with spunk and period style.

More importantly, Teutsch’s voice provides conviction for slower ballads like “Tenderly”, and “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?” - particularly when these numbers are rooted in pivotal events in Clooney’s life.

As an actress Teutsch possesses a broad emotional range that facilitates expression of girlish joy at her first audition and the flirtatious excitement of her initial encounter with future husband, Dante.

In Clooney’s gut wrenching diatribe on the Reno stage, Teutsch wisely stays in her lower vocal register, avoiding the temptation to go for volume, or shrill notes.

Although the lead actress is up to the challenge of the writers’ indulgences here, the script lingers on the legendary meltdown and could benefit by taking a few minutes off of a show that seems a little long.

Despite this, Teutsch is greatly assisted in her efforts to tell Clooney’s story by the versatile Hal Hobson-Morse. In addition to playing her Doctor, Hobson-Morse portrays a number of figures important in Clooney’s life. Included in his repertoire are her priest, her mother, husbands, and others who are sketched with an article of clothing or a prop. The most noteworthy of Hobson-Morse’s character portraits is crooner Bing Crosby. He assists her career with invitations to appear on his TV specials and joins her for a delightfully relaxed and conversational version of “How About You?”

To do justice to the life and the music of Clooney, Tenderly depends on quick transitions in time, space and tempo. Director Gregory Moore keeps the action moving with seamless and lucid shifts from Clooney’s triumphant and troubled past, to the show’s present day office of her psychiatrist where songs and events are placed in perspective.

During each therapy session, Hobson-Morse’s character urges his resistant patient to face the choices that brought her to this point in her life. The breakthrough comes when Clooney finally and reluctantly admits that her friend, the recently assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, is no longer alive. The refusal to face Kennedy’s death is a symbol for the denial that Clooney overcame to reclaim her life from the pills that once owned her.

With the help of a talented trio of musicians, Mark Tomlonson, bass; Keith Hall (or substitute Ethan Bouwsma), Percussion; and Lori Hatfield, Keyboards, the Parish Theatre becomes an intimate cabaret: a perfect club setting for presenting Clooney’s music.

The measure of any biographically based musical need not rest solely on the ability of a performer to bring the subject to life before one’s eyes with total fidelity. But the resemblance of Teutsch to Clooney both vocally and physically is striking and undeniable. If you close your eyes momentarily during many of the numbers as I did, you might swear you hear the voice of Clooney herself. Or better yet keep your eyes open. You might see Rosemary standing on stage in front of you.

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