Ensemble Theatre Company
If you live in Los Angeles, heading to Santa Barbara to see a production mounted by the venerable Ensemble Theatre Company at the New Vic is usually well worth the trip—and then of course, it’s also a swell excuse for planning an overnight or weekend mini-vaca to one of our state’s most beautiful and historic regions.
The first production in ECT’s valiant (and exceptionally safe) attempt to return to normalcy, the company reopens with the SoCal premiere of the regionally well-traveled musical Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical, which unfortunately sports a flawed and glaringly chopped-up book by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman yet also features one noteworthy reason for a trip up our coast: a spectacular tour de force turn by Linda Purl in the title role.
Although I will do my best, perhaps I am not the best guy to be completely objective in covering this show since Rosie was one of my dearest friends and early mentors when as a young pup I first arrived in Lost Angeles and later became my frequent "plus-one" when I began reviewing theatre in the late 80s. In turn, I was her “date” for many of the social events and benefits she attended when I was editor of the Beverly Hills Post before she found and connected with her lost love Dante DiPaolo in the mid-90s.
I was also given an earlier version of this script when it was first being passed around more than a decade ago to see if my personal insight could help it grow. I’m not sure what the authors thought of my input but, judging from where Tenderly has gone since then, not much, it seems.
Although setting the musical in the mental hospital where Rosie was admitted after her notorious breakdown in 1968 while performing onstage in Reno is a clever hook, it also tends to make Tenderly more about Rosie’s woes and many trials in her journey than it celebrates her infectious humor and joy for life that I was lucky enough to be privy to until her passing from lung cancer in 2002.
What’s missing here is Rosie’s incredibly quick and world-class wit, something that easily helped her hold her own against some of her many celebrated comedian friends. The absence of this integral part of one of the most spirited and resilient people I have even known makes it hard for me to see her portrayed as troubled 90% of the time in this predictable “And-then-she-wrote” musical chronicling of her life.
Despite this, Purl is magnificent in the challenging role, astoundingly able to create, under the guidance of one of LA’s best directors Jenny Sullivan (something to which I can personally attest having the supreme privilege of being directed by her myself several times), an indelible and multifaceted characterization despite the script’s lack of depth in the portrayal of the larger-than-life musical icon. Beyond the limitations given them by the playwrights, however, there's definitely a complete person created here and may I also say how uncannily Miss Purl has managed to duplicate Rosie’s vocal stylings and phrasing, as well as the uniqueness of her voice, complete with those eerie lower ranges that always made her sound as though was singing through a bad cold.
Although when I was given one of the first versions of Tenderly to peruse and comment upon, unless my quickly disappearing memory does not serve me, it featured several actors and, although most of them played various people weaving in and out of Rosie’s life, here David Engel has the exhausting task of playing everyone in the story, sometimes in ridiculously quick turnarounds. This includes the psychiatrist who helped Rosie through her breakdown, as well as her ex-husband Jose Ferrer, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dante, even her mother and sister Betty, someone Engel impressively assays in a musical duet of “Sisters” from White Christmas brightly choreographed by Jean Michelle Sayeg.
The majorly talented LA musical theatre veteran Engel, who understandably is most comfortable in Tenderly’s musical interludes, faces a near-impossible task of making all this work and generally it does, although after awhile one might hope we could be trusted to recognize these characters without him having to grab Betty’s scarf, der Bingle’s ever-present pipe, or Sinatra’s cocked fedora with jacket swung over one shoulder each time he saunters on. We get it without the need for such visual overkill, honest.
The onstage trio featuring musical director George Friedenthal on keyboards, David Hunt on drums, and Rob Moreno on bass, contribute quintessential accompaniment to Purl’s memorable recreations of Rosie’s most famous hits—particularly the title song and “Hey There”—and the design elements are impressive throughout, notably Francois-Pierre Couture’s creamily rich and evocative lighting. Again, what doesn’t live up to everything else about this production is the book, which seems to have been written by two rabid fans intent on namedropping every famous person who ever came into Rosemary’s life, from Bing to Frank to Bobby Kennedy to even a completely unnecessary mention of her sharing a bowl of chili at Chasen’s with Gregory Peck.
No designer contributes more to any production than costumer extraordinaire Alex Jaeger, but here he is hampered by the title character spending the entire production dressed in a dowdy blue hospital gown, only to blossom way too late in the second act into one of Rosie’s glamorous and gorgeous shimmering stage gowns—something she had rows and rows of glistening behind hermetically-sealed glass doors in the remodeled room adjacent to the ever-cluttered and chaotic upstairs bedroom suite in her now sadly demolished Beverly Hills house on Roxbury Drive (the former home of George Gershwin, in front of which young Miguel and Rafi Ferrer sold lemonade to passing tourists).
In a fine example of the lategreat star’s warpspeed self-deprecating humor so glaringly absent here, I was instantly reminded, seeing Miss Purl enter for the last scene decked out in Jaeger's perfect recreation of one of Rosie’s many lavishly sequined plus-sized camouflaging jackets, that she had dubbed them with an especially endearing tag. I heard it for the first time one day as she prepared to leave town on tour when she asked me if I wanted to go with her to her dressmaker’s where she was getting fitted for her “new tents.”
See, this is the Rosemary Clooney still lost in Tenderly. A friend commented after the show, “My god, I never knew what an awful life she led!” No, actually she didn’t—but only because she innately knew, despite those infamously public lapses, how to rise above the trials and tribulations of her life, a gift which has been a huge inspiration in how I’ve lived my own life. Now, that’s the part of the story I hope will still one day be told.
THROUGH OCT. 24: Ensemble Theatre Company at the New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara. 805.965.5400 or firstname.lastname@example.org