The phenomenon lives on in “Call Me Merman,” a surprisingly satisfying celebration of La Merm that canters through the Broadway legend’s greatest hits while offering Angela Richards a gutsy acting-singing showcase, which the vet English performer seizes with gusto. When Richards is offstage resting her lungs, John Kane’s script wisely gives center stage to Susannah Fellows, late of “Mamma Mia!,” who is herself no vocal slouch. Those who tend to lament (often rightly) the undersung quality of so many West End shows will be amazed to hear two such ample, seemingly unamplified (how true to Merman!) voices in a modest show that could certainly have a dinner theater/summer stock future, even if it would just as certainly wither in the West End.
The format is less cringe-inducing than it often is in such contexts. Richards’ Merman has completed her triumphant if Tony-losing Broadway run in “Gypsy” and is glimpsed prepping a new Vegas act with colleagues Kitty (Fellows) and Arty (Mark White), while waiting for that phone call to tell whether she, and not Rosalind Russell, will in fact get the screen role of Mama Rose after all.
On hand as accompanist is a new piano player, Phil (Fiz Shapur), who, being English, doesn’t know Merman’s full history. He becomes scripter Kane’s onstage audience surrogate, who can be told the necessary background in between one or another of the ladies’ full-throttle vocal forays.
And just when “Call Me Merman” threatens to tip into hagiography, a honking wit steers things back on course: “We want to show them Ethel Merman, the woman,” the diva’s (unseen) director says of the Vegas routine. Merman’s crisp reply: “Send them to my gynecologist,” which is more or less the wisecrack that sends us out for intermission.
Kane and director David Kernan, whose affiliation with such revues dates back at least as far as the original “Side by Side by Sondheim” (which he was in), wisely don’t try to pass off Merman as something she was not. The show pokes genial fun at its subject’s preference for her public over her co-stars, as evidenced by that brassy, out-front delivery that rendered those sharing a stage with Merman as good as gone. And when she did notice her colleagues, it wasn’t always for the best, at least if Kane’s account of Merman’s battle with Fernando Lamas in 1956 musical “Happy Hunting” is at all accurate.
One probably could dispense with apercus to the effect of, “The gods were shining down on little Ethel,” by way of accounting for the ascent of the Queens-born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman to Broadway superstardom. But it’s hard to deify a woman who demands an intro that is “fulsome, and then some” but isn’t so much of a gorgon that she can’t shed a tear for career setbacks (the “Gypsy” movie, of course, did go to Russell) and much domestic unhappiness across three husbands.
Still, who wants a psychobiography when there are songs to be sung? Most sensibly, Kane keeps the quips about Merman’s incontinent dog to a minimum and lets the two women (and three men, including Mark White as an agreeably all-purpose foil) get on with the show, as Mama Rose might say.
One could quibble about the touch-and-go tempo for “Some People” as sung by Fellows, an exciting singer blessed with the height and cheekbones of Betty Buckley and the trailing curls of Bernadette Peters. But Fellows brings a fierce country music-like attack to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and gets through some potentially sticky early passages in which she must impersonate wee Ethel, age 9.
Richards, in turn, is somewhat heavier now than she was opposite Stephen Rea and Natasha Richardson in the West End preem nearly two decades ago of “High Society.” But the girth only serves the character of Merman, who on this evidence is less the bulldozer one has always imagined than a savvy showbiz creature who has — via her own assessment — made a career out of five gestures and that roof-raising voice, which Richards catches without caricature. (The actress does particularly well by “I Got Lost in His Arms,” from “Annie Get Your Gun.”)
And if Merman did have her Mrs. Malaprop moments — she is seen wondering about “great art being some kind of catheter” — such lapses only humanize the pauses in between Ethel at her peak, goading and pushing that voice to superhuman feats.