Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002) was a Kentucky native with a dominating, difficult Irish-Catholic mother. Her parents split when she was young, and she had a troubled marriage, too. Still, she had a notable film career in the 1950s, lived in a Beverly Hills mansion and made her name with a series of hit recordings, some kitschy, others timeless and beautiful.
She became, in the end, a jazz singer.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was born in Philadelphia, abandoned by her father and had a turbulent childhood. She worked in a brothel with her mother, spent time in jail (more than once), and endured the endless bigotry of the white man’s world. She saw herself as the musical love child of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
She was, it seems, always meant to sing jazz.
What these two artists have in common was a struggle with addiction, and it is that material, that chaos and tension, that puts the sting in two powerful productions now playing at Atlanta theaters: “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical,” at Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell, and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” at Theatrical Outfit downtown.
Both shows are quite good, thanks to the charisma, vocal prowess and mesmerizing acting of Rachel Sorsa (Clooney) and Terry Burrell (Holiday). The women they channel occupied different milieu, but danced on the edge in a public way.
Sorsa, in a show directed by James Donadio and co-starring Mark Cabus in a variety of roles, is the real deal, glamorous and polished like the young Clooney and a wonderful singer.
It’s not her fault that she’s too petite and pretty to play Clooney in her final days, by which time the star had gotten off pills, put on weight and wore big ’80s glasses. But that period is just a tiny bit of the story. As her character evolves, and genuinely tries to banish her demons, Sorsa makes us feel what it was like to be a celebrity paralyzed by fear, terror and unhappiness.
Cabus, her acting partner, is a solid, sometimes excellent actor who is game for all kinds of shenanigans: as the straight-laced psychiatrist who treats Clooney; as Jose Ferrer, the egotistical, Puerto Rico-born, Oscar- and Tony-winning actor she married twice; as her stern, unforgiving mother; and her bright-eyed little sister and early musical partner, Betty.
I won’t spoil the intimate details about Clooney’s friendship with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy, but it’s a real lulu.
As Lady Day, Burrell, under the direction of Eric J. Little, gives one of the most bruising performances of the season. Also, quite possibly, one of the most emotionally affecting turns I’ve witnessed in my reviewing career. How often does one leave the theater feeling this gutted?
With every fiber of her being, Burrell inhabits the itchy skin of Holiday. She sounds like her, almost resembles her, and in the end becomes her: shocking and scabrous, funny and tender, crucified by love and pain, comforted by a little dog.
In Lanie Robertson’s play with music, first seen at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 1986, Holiday is back home in Philly, trying to hold it together for one more gig. She tells us about her mother, for whom she wrote the song “God Bless the Child”; her father, whose death she was informed of via a shocking and unnecessarily cold telephone call; and the great love of her life, Sonny, who was so sweet, so sad and so persuasive in his desire for heroin that he hooked her, too.
This sordid tale makes it queasy and messily clear that once the needle goes in, it never comes out.
Rosemary Clooney had five children; Billie Holiday had none, but that didn’t stop the longing. But where Clooney pulls herself together, we know that Holiday is not long for this world.
While “Tenderly” is a full-length two-hander with an intermission, “Lady Day,” at 90 minutes long, is essentially a solo show (except for a few lines by William Knowles, who doubles as the show’s pianist and Holiday’s accompanist, Jimmy Powers). It falls a bit flat when Burrell is required to exit the stage, but when she’s on, we are blinded by an incandescent flame.
Clooney was probably a far deeper talent than she gets credit for being. But the tragedy of Holiday, one of the great performers of the modern age, hangs over us like a dark cloud. Burrell burrows down into the soul of this American original, and nearly kills us with grief.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”
Through Feb. 4. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $18-$51. Theatrical Outfit, the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org.
“Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical”
Through Jan. 28. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. $30-$46. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Roswell Cultural Arts Center, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260, get.org.
Bottom line: Two stories of addiction, with music.
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