Playing at the Mizel Center in Denver, the singer’s story is a refreshing take on the biographical musical

It’s a well-known arc for the modern celebrity: artist grows up poor, artist gets a break or two and rises to fame, artist gets hooked on drugs or booze, artist has a messy divorce or two, artist recovers and has a successful second act (or dies).

Long before many contemporary actors, singers and other celebrities spiraled out of control before coming back down to Earth, Rosemary Clooney struggled through an addiction to pills and a crappy marriage before getting clean and reinventing herself as a singer.

Known to many now as the aunt to George Clooney, the singer was actually a pretty big deal in the 1950s, singing pop songs like “Mambo Italiano,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “This Ole House” and the title hit, “Tenderly.” Her career’s rise and fall coincides with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, when the likes of Elvis and his contemporaries quickly made the songs Clooney sang dated and less popular. Only in her mid 20s, she’d already proclaiming herself a “has-been.”

Clooney’s tale is captured for stage in Tenderly, the Rosemary Clooney Musical, now playing at the Mizel Center in Denver in a production from the ever-reliable Cherry Creek Theatre. The 2015 show was written by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman and is directed here by Kelly Van Oosbree. With just two cast members, Oosbree chose well with veteran Colorado actor Abby Apple Boes as Clooney and Jeffrey Parker playing her shrink and a host of other characters.

While Tenderly features a great many songs from Clooney’s career, it’s not a simple juke-box musical where a thin plot is just a vehicle for the songs. Vogt and Friedman put together an engaging story that seamlessly blends Clooney’s songs with her life. Apple Boes does a fantastic job recreating Clooney’s warm and powerful voice while being convincing as the star who comes to understand what’s important in life. Parker is a joy as the rest of the cast, playing everyone from Clooney’s little sister and mother to her two husbands and famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. They sing, they dance, they argue and make up, all to the accompaniment of a rollicking piano upstage by the ubiquitous David Nehls, who also serves as musical director.

Abby Apple Boes with Jeffrey Parker in ‘Tenderly.’ Photo: Olga Lopez

The breakdown

The action kicks off at a pivotal point in 1968, where Clooney loses it onstage in Reno and ends up in a mental hospital. Meeting with the doctor charged with helping her, the two characters stitch together a narrative that moves backwards and forwards in time, with Parker popping in and out of cameos as needed, and Apple Boes fully inhabiting the role of Clooney as she does the celebrity roller coaster. The musical numbers are seamlessly interwoven with Clooney’s life story while the shrink steers her to examine her past. Parker is also a strong singer and dancer, and we learn early on that the character of “The Doctor” would turn out to be a whole lot more.

Most of the show has Clooney in the hospital setting, where she wears a drab dress in contrast to her fancy stage clothes (well-wrought by costume designer Linda Morken). It’s an apt appearance as she works through her ups and downs and strips things down to the basics on her way to healing.

While most Cherry Creek shows are performed in the Mizel’s smaller theatre, social distancing has Tenderly in the larger space. This gave Van Oosbree a good deal more leeway with the blocking and overall staging of the show, and the two characters make the most of it amid a relatively simple set. Patrick Hinchliffe’s lighting design does some of the heavy lifting, with multiple configurations that mirror the mood without being distracting.

For a small theatre that’s only been around for 10 seasons, Cherry Creek continues to impress. Under artistic producer Suzie Snodgrass, the theatre is able to attract great local actors and directors, and their show choices are a good mix of safe crowd-pleasers to edgier plays. If I gave out awards, I’d call Cherry Creek one of the top 10 small theatres in Colorado. Tenderly continues this strong run, the first live show out of the gate for Cherry Creek since the pandemic shut things down in early 2020. Even if you’ve never heard of Rosemary Clooney, it’s a universal story that should resonate with everyone – and the songs are fun as well.

Tenderly runs through Aug. 29.