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REVIEW: Unexpectedly Deep Tenderly (Old Log Theatre)

Gracie Anderson and C. Ryan Shipley star in Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior, MN. Photo courtesy of the Old Log Theatre.

There are jukebox musicals that pass like a piece of cotton candy dissolving on the tongue, and there are jukebox musicals that surprise you with their depth and gravity. Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical, which opened last night at the Old Log Theatre, is one of the latter.

For some, Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002) is a household name; for others of a younger generation, some prompting may be required. The celebrated songstress appeared in cinema hits such as White Christmas, hosted a pair of television musical variety of shows, and regularly co-starred with Bing Crosby in radio, television, and concert appearances. After a much-publicized, mid-performance breakdown, she eventually returned to performing and established a new reputation and multi-decade career as a jazz singer. She kept performing through the last year of her life, and left a 65-release discography that includes collaborations with Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Marlene Dietrich, Benny Goodman, José Ferrar, and more.

Rosemary Clooney (Gracie Anderson) visits her psychiatrist (C. Ryan Shipley). Photo courtesy of the Old Log Theatre.

With such an extensive recording legacy to draw on, you expect that this show written by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman will have a score stuffed with beautiful and interesting songs. That part is certainly true, but the details of her biography will likely surprise and intrigue you. Like Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, an immensely varied song catalog is used to explore a life in music; unlike Beautiful, Tenderly does not gloss over darker elements such as battles with mental illness and drug addiction.

An interesting aspect of this storytelling is that it’s principally executed with just two actors: Gracie Anderson as Rosemary Clooney, and C. Ryan Shipley as The Doctor and a whole cavalcade of male and female characters. (The Production Assistant, Abigail Rose Sharp, is conspicuously on-stage for announcements, costume changes, etc.) As Clooney/Anderson spins out anecdotes of childhood, celebrities, and romances in her psychiatrist’s office, Shipley transforms into whatever other character is required – sometimes with hilarious results, such as when the two re-enact the famous “Sisters” duet from White Christmas.

Gracie Anderson and C. Ryan Shipley recreating the famous “Sisters” duet from White Christmas. Photo courtesy of the Old Log Theatre.

The performance tour de force demands both agility and endurance from both of its principals. Anderson rises easily to the challenges imposed not just by the stylistic diversity of Rosemary Clooney’s song catalog, but also of portraying the singer’s life bleeding differently into each performance. The results, as one audience member noted during intermission, are mesmerizing. She is onstage almost constantly, with little break or interval, and 18 songs to deliver (a pair of songs by Yates Vogt and Friedman fit right into the rest of the jukebox score). By murmuring and applause, some of the audience favorites included “It’s Only a Paper Moon“, “Botch-A-Me” (delivered in a sensuously cute dance duet choreographed by Jaclyn Juola), and “I Remember You“. In a word, her performance is gripping; in three, fastidious, multilayered, and delightful.

Gracie Anderson as songstress Rosemary Clooney. Photo courtesy of the Old Log Theatre.

Anderson’s near-constant stage partner is Shipley, who ably navigates the challenges of portraying both unfamiliar family figures and a host of distinct and famous celebrities – often with no more costuming assistance than donning a hat or a shawl. As directed by Eric Morris, these changes take place with nary a lighting shift or privacy panel, or even a moment’s pause – something that is initially distracting, but which keeps the action moving at a swift pace. (There is, after all, more than fifty years Clooney’s performing to cover.) Shipley shows great versatility and timing, and is no slouch in the vocal department, whether imitating Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, or Betty Clooney.

Depending on your generation, the songs in Tenderly may be eminently familiar or almost entirely novel. As rendered by the trio led by musical director Luke Davidson, there are a few that are sure to get stuck your head and work their way onto your playlist.

Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical plays through June 8 at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior, MN.

Basil Considine