reviewed by Alix Cohen
Undaunted by dozens of Ethel Merman tributes, the engaging Alix Korey offers a mostly fresh take on her iconic subject with some unexpected material, well tailored arrangements, and terrific comic flair. Though vocals sometimes brass-up in winking acknowledgement, the artist doesn’t imitate Merman so much as appreciate her. Korey’s brighter, somewhat less powerful voice is emotionally invested, her onstage persona warm.
Opening with a song from Tales of Tinseltown (Michael Colby/Paul Katz) “I thought it was appropriate so I appropriated it,” lays the groundwork for a show not merely comprised of greatest hits. I’m here, I’m yours/The broad Broadway adores/Cause I can siiiiiiiing…
Ethel Merman was acquiring secretarial skills when she started to work with writers of Tin Pan Alley. The first song she recorded was not, however, a showcase for those remarkable pipes, but rather “How Deep is the Ocean?” Korey renders this with low key feeling. After Girl Crazy, it was George Gershwin who first told Merman she would be a star. He also told the young performer she shouldn’t have voice lessons. When Gershwin tragically died at 39, Merman sang “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” at his memorial. Buoyed by Christopher Marlowe’s nuanced, balladic piano Korey delivers a sweet, sad version you’re unlikely to hear again.
A segment on Merman’s ill chosen husbands is at the same time naturalistic and stand-up routine. Laughter comes easily this evening. “I tell you this not to be dishy, but to show that when Dorothy Fields wrote Ethel a torch song, she knew how to sing it.” (A stylish segue) “I’ll Pay the Check” (Dorothy Fields/Arthur Schwartz) is the terrific, rarely heard soliloquy of a woman who knows she has company because she’s paying. Korey is bitter, resigned, and strident, a quality that oddly works for the lyrics.
We hear well expressed choices from Annie Get Your Gun (Korey has starred) with spot-on accent, including a spirited “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” for which we sing chorus and a lilting “Moonshine Lullaby.” “Irving Berlin was the only person who had the chutzpah to write Merman a lullaby.” This is followed by strong, nasal numbers from Call Me Madam-the vocalist excels and a turn as Mama Rose from Gypsy.
Asked so often to perform a medley, Merman put one together with a musical intro by Roger Edens featuring such clever lyrics as You wouldn’t want to see me as Mimi in Boheemee. Songs are familiar and brief, segues smooth, sequence appealing. The medley also closes with Edens: Now you know what I am doing here/I’m right where I belong…I’m just a lady with a song.
Ethel Merman starred in 14 Broadway shows, 17 films and made endless television appearances. “Do you remember when they had professional singers on television?” Sigh.
Korey finishes with a Hello Dolly (Jerry Herman) song written for Merman but cut from the show when she declined opening it out of exhaustion. 6 Dolly Levis later, Ethel Merman assumed the part on Broadway and the tune was reinstated. No more standing on the sidelines/I intend to star in my show… It’s a good song, something of an anthem, and an excellent, upbeat way to leave us.
Arrangements are deft and textured. The show is well paced and well directed by Scott Barnes.
Alix Korey Celebrates Ethel Merman
Christopher Marlow-Musical Director/Piano
254 West 54th Street
Venue Calendar http://54below.com/january/