This Merman is not ready for Broadway.
The only all acoustic theater company “Acoustic Voice” is in San Francisco this month with the North American premiere of CALL ME MISS BIRDS EYE, a tribute to the great Ethel Merman. Of course Ethel would rarely use a microphone, nor did they have many during her golden years on Broadway. This show is a perfect fit for this company based out of Northcote, Victoria, Australia. Written by Jack Tinker and starring Denise Wharmby as Ethel Merman, the jukebox revue follows the life of one of Broadway's most legendary performers who came to be known as the First Lady of Musical Theater. The revue includes more than 30 songs from Merman's extensive song catalogue. It follows her journey from a day job as a steno to when she became the star in her first musical Girl Crazy, and how she stood her ground against the musical theater's most famous writers and producers. She never took a singing lesson, and made sure the theatres she played in were at the temperature she stipulated in her long contracts.
This pre-broadway run still needs some work before they drop, later this fall, into the great white way. From the looks of the light Thursday night crowd, this run may not even be ready for the Geary stage. None the less, Merman fans will be delighted with this song list that is non stop. From Mermans first days in the 30’s, “Girl Crazy” got her name in lights, and 40 years later where she stopped the show on a nightly bases as Dolly Levi. The show opens with Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business," from the Broadway smash hit, "Annie Get Your Gun." Denise Wharmby is good as Merman especially when she hits those long Ethel notes that bounced off the Geary theatre chandeliers. Her two side kicks Martin Greenwood and Don Bridges are on cue and sing well. Yet there is something missing from the show. The Merman energy and pizzazz misses the target. Greenwood and Bridges at times drop lines and have some clumsy exits that I am sure will tighten up before this opens in New York.
Under the musical direction of Graham Clarke, who also wears the Artistic Director hat, and is on stage/piano throughout the two act show. Clarke understands this pre-Broadway gig is perfect for the pure Merman fan. The Bel Canto musical theatre technique means no use of anything electric except the lights. “Acoustic Voice” does claim to be the only company with this concept, but the SF Lamplighters company at times performs their entire operas without microphones. Rick Wallace directed and did some limited choreography, but the three on stage mostly use their hands for the performance. Especially Merman, during her hey day, who sang with her hands
The songbook is clearly a standout and rings across the Geary, yet the dynamics on stage never hits that show stopping glamour that Merman was famous for. The first lady of Broadway owned the New York stages she performed on. Fans stood for her every show stealing moment, but you won’t get that from Warmby, she does not sell the songs. My guess is to inhabit Merman is not an easy task. I would be challenged by this remark from a few SF Drag Queens who would have loved to be cast in this role. The company is from Astoria and at times you get a ting of Auzi in the air, but it is not a bad thing.
British theatre critic Jack Tinker wrote this script back in 1985, when it first was staged on the West End. Some of the book has changed with updates about Mermans start as an office steno, and her short term four marriages. The Ernest Borgnine tale is one of the famous Mr. Mermans. She had two children that both passed at young ages. Merman was famous with her run in’s with composers. Her favorite Irving Berlin, she convinced to change “Call Me Madam” to “Call me Miss Birds Eye, it’s frozen” of course that didn’t happen.
It is an amazing song list, from Cole Porter “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “It’s De-Lovely.” “Hey Good Lookin”. From Berlin “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Jule Styne “Some People” from Gypsy. From Nacio Herb Brown “Eadie Was a Lady” and the Gershwin's “I Got Rhythm”. In 1972 Ethel received a special TONY award for her work in American Theatre. After 6,000 plus performances, Ethel Merman died on Feb 15, 1984 at the age of 84, that night every Broadway theatre dimmed their lights.
CALL ME MISS BIRDS EYE runs through July 19th and you can find some great prices for tickets. To your surprise if you purchase a Balcony 20.00 seat - most likely they will bump you up to a Orch seat since the show is not selling well. The night I attended the Mez and Balc were empty as the house manager brought everyone down to sit up front. This night is for the true Merman fan. “Everything's Coming up Roses” at the Geary stage.
CALL ME MISS BIRDS EYE
A.C.T.'s Geary Theater at 415 Geary St., San Francisco,
Starring Denise Wharmby, by Jack Tinker.
Directed by Rick Wallace.
Through July 19. $20-$65.
ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. One hour, 20 minutes.
(415) 749-2228. www.act-sf.org.
Photos by: Kevin Berne