Rita McKenzie, in her one-woman tribute to Ethel Merman, quotes the entertainer as saying, “I had that one special quality — I’m loud!” She consistently maintains that attitude with a gutsy, high-volume vocal and acting approach. McKenzie, who starred in this production Off Broadway, has her character’s physical mannerisms down pat, and she reproduces Merman’s famous vibrato with raucous authenticity. Her comic timing is less assured, and the uneven script (written with Christopher Powich) too often settles for reverence instead of the savage insight this legendary performer requires.
Merman’s professional associations with George Gershwin, who jumpstarted her career with the hit show “Girl Crazy”; Cole Porter (“my real love — strictly platonic”); and Irving Berlin, provider of her longest running hit, “Annie Get Your Gun,” are depicted as one long honeymoon. Absence of tension dampens the impact of these anecdotes, but McKenzie socks across Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” She also invites the crowd to sing along to the latter tune, assigning a fan to pass around Ritz crackers while pretending to be garrulous partygiver Perle Mesta, the personality she immortalized in “Call Me Madam.”
Show’s second half steers clear of the sentimentality that mars Act One. Director Powich wisely drops attempts to make Merman lovable, and we belatedly see the bitchy broad who hated “Happy Hunting” co-star Fernando Lamas for wiping his mouth after their onstage kisses. Referring to her brief 1964 marriage to actor Ernest Borgnine, the disgusted diva remarks acidly, “I can only plead temporary insanity.”
She lambastes Rosalind Russell as “a Jeep among limousines” when Russell wins the film role of “Gypsy” after Merman triumphed with it on Broadway. Merman projected too expansively for movies, despite appearances in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Anything Goes,” and McKenzie captures her bitterness at filmland’s neglect by observing, “There’s nothing wrong with Hollywood that a good earthquake couldn’t cure.”
Musically, the show is most exciting when McKenzie does an “Annie Get Your Gun” medley. “Call Me Madam” finds her in strong form with “The Hostess with the Mostess on the Ball.” Merman generally substituted booming brassiness for deep lyric interpretation (Stephen Sondheim called her interpretation of “Rose’s Turn” the work of a “talking dog”), and McKenzie is also short on nuance, though she nails the pathos and pain in Sondheim and Styne’s “Some People.”
John Feinstein’s sound is too hot, especially when McKenzie bears down on those bombastic high notes. Ron Snyder’s musical direction has a convincingly legit, greasepaint quality, and Eric Winterling’s minimal but appropriately gaudy costumes add the right touch of flamboyance.