Many people today may know Rosemary Clooney as much for her famous actor nephew, George Clooney, as for her career as a singer and actress who was contemporaries with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Her pop success with such tunes as “Come On-a My House,” “Sisters” (from the movie “White Christmas”) and “Mambo Italiano” in the 1950s and ’60s seems like a distant memory now.
Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Story, now on stage at Limelight Actors Theater, aims to expand on that slim knowledge with a deeper dive into her life and work. Directed by and starring Diano Milo in the title role, the musical showcases 18 songs from the Clooney songbook as the singer reflects on her life through a series of conversations with her Beverly Hills psychiatrist, Victor Monke, well-played by Michael Hirsch.
The show opens with Clooney in a glittering evening gown and long gloves onstage in Reno, where years of addiction to pills coupled with the recent assassination of her good friend Robert F. Kennedy led to an onstage nervous breakdown. Her involuntary hospitalization leads her to prickly meetings with Monke, who teases from her the lows, and highs, of her life.
Among the highs were her collaborations with Crosby and others and her success as a jazz and pop vocalist. The lows started early with the abandonment of her and her sister by their mother when she was quite young, two tumultuous marriages to Jose Ferrer, with whom she had five children (the first four in a three and a half year span), her addiction to pills and her public breakdown. She had sung at the Ambassador Hotel the night of RFK’s assassination and was close enough to hear the gunshots that took his life; she was devastated by his death.
Her early meetings with Monke aren’t especially fruitful, but she warms to his easy ear and over the years of their sessions, grows into a true friendship.
Milo really shines as a singer; she has a lovely timbre to her voice and thoroughly owns the role. From the opening “Hey There” through “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Mambo Italiano” to “This Ole House,” she has the audience in the palm of her hand.
Hirsch is a delight as her foil, acting not simply as her shrink but in roles from her priest to her sister Betty to Sinatra to Crosby to Clooney’s husband Jose Ferrer), seamlessly shifting vocal inflections and sometimes changing (literal) hats to convey who’s sharing the stage. Their two voices meld beautifully on duets whether Hirsch is singing a female or male role.
An onstage three-piece band, led by musical director Michael Johnson on piano, Greg Goebel on bass and Dave Matthews on percussion, adds richness to every song.
‘Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical.’ By Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. Limelight Actors Theater. Through May 19 at Gilroy Center for the Arts, 7341 Monterey St., Gilroy. Tickets $25, seniors $22, $30 Mother’s Day matinee special. 408.472.3292, limelightactorstheater.com.