Amon Miyamoto’s “I Got Merman” has been a long-running hit in Japan. Now the Japanese director’s tribute to the late Ethel Merman has opened in the U.S. with an American cast. Merman has scarcely been left uncelebrated in this country since her death in 1984, with many a cabaret singer drawing on her repertoire, and so bringing “I Got Merman” Stateside is something of a coals-to-Newcastle enterprise.
The show is a wild mixture of the very good (the songs), the good (the singers and the two pianists), the not-so-good (the book, direction and choreography) and the truly awful (the hideous, badly made costumes). Overall, it is difficult to see what slot it could legitimately fill in America.
“I Got Merman” is basically a cabaret revue that strings together a generous number of Merman songs with biographical bits and pieces. Three women — two white, one black — portray Merman (though without, for the most part, attempting to sound like her). The book encourages them to vie for the spotlight, bickering with and even kicking one another (in a “Friendship” trio), a gimmick that becomes tiresome.
All three — Sandy Binion, Becca Ayers and Andi Hopkins — are talented and manage to rise above their ghastly dresses. They’re ably aided by pianists Jan Rosenberg and Sarah Jane Cion, who sit beneath the too-basic set’s three metal arches outlined in light bulbs.
The arrangements are imaginative and skillful, including a slow, sad “Blue Skies” after we’ve been told of the suicides of Merman’s second husband, Bob Levitt, and their daughter. There’s an effective merging of the songs “Riding High” and “Together,” and “Some People” is used autobiographically early on by a Merman who is, at this point, an office typist longing to be a performer.
All three women make the most of their individual moments in lighting designer Paul Gallo’s multicolored spotlights, and they work well together.
Unfortunately, the book by Miyamoto and American Dan W. Davis offers little real insight into either Merman the woman or Merman the performer. And Miyamoto’s staging and choreography is too often hokey, including trips up and down the aisles, and songs sung while sitting in the laps of audience members.
When the show rises above its obvious deficiencies, it’s not without entertainment value. But a lot of weeding out of its dumber bits seems crucial for the U.S. market.