by: Paulanne Simmons
First Lady of musical comedy stage, Ethel Merman died in 1984, but her spirit lives on in Rita McKenzie’s Ethel Merman’s Broadway. This is the country’s longest running one-woman show, and from the moment McKenzie walked onstage at Feinstein’s/54 Below on December 12 the audience knew why.
McKenzie, who is currently starring in off-Broadway’s Ruthless, is very much a dead ringer for the formidable Merman. Dressed in several of Merman’s signature gowns (she makes frequent changes in a kind of shed set up onstage), McKenzie belts out many of the diva’s most famous songs.
The musical numbers trace Merman’s rise in musical theater from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes to her final return to the New York stage when she became the seventh actress to take the lead role in Jerry Herman’s Hello Dolly! (which had originally been written for her). There is a special emphasis on major Broadway successes: Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madame, and her “crowning glory,” Gypsy.”
McKenzie also delivers a pretty accurate image of what the star was like on a personal level. We’re told Merman was called Ethel Agnes Zimmerman growing up in Astoria Queens, that she was an Episcopalian by birth and a Republican by choice.
We also learn about the composers and lyricists she worked with, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin; and the four men she married, William Smith, Robert Levitt (the father of her son and daughter), Robert Six and Ernest Borgnine (they stayed together for five weeks).
The show is chock full of the famous Merman profanity and punchlines. “Hollywood is fine – nothing a good earthquake couldn’t cure,” “They call me Miss Birds Eye; when I open a show, it stays frozen” and let’s not even get into her response to Loretta Young’s prudery.
There’s also a good deal of audience participation. McKenzie gave one girl sitting on the sidelines a five dollar bill and told her to get a better seat next time. She had another person from the audience pass around a plate of crackers and dip she’d put together onstage. And she had the entire audience join in on a rousing rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
It takes a big personality to fill Merman’s boots. Fortunately, McKenzie has all that is necessary to recreate the glamour the glitter and the guts of this unforgettable diva.
Feinstein’s/54 Below is at 254 West 54 Street, Feinstein’s/54below.com.