By Joel Benjamin
Theater Review: The York Theatre Company may be preaching to the choir with its charming new show Inventing Mary Martin – The Revue of a Lifetime, but the show can still entertain even those who never heard of this musical theater legend. Learning about her fascinating career en route is a bonus in this show which features not only songs associated with this diva, but a quick-moving biography tossed off by the genial host/singer Jason Graae. Graae, a graceful guy with an expressive voice is joined by Cameron Adams, Lynne Halliday and Emily Skinner, all terrific singers with complementary personalities.
With only one misstep, the show quickly went from Mary Martin’s childhood in Texas to limited success in Hollywood to diva-hood on Broadway—after some tentative starts. From Leave It to Me (in which she wore a fur coat over a skimpy bathing suit) to I Do, I Do, she was one of the most in demand and beloved artists ever to set foot on a Broadway stage.
The stage was saturated with frames of all sizes some of which contained photos of Miss Martin in her famous roles. The four performers romped through the story of her life, also assisted by projections of maps, movie posters, programs, etc. The program included some oddities, numbers from her rather short movie career along with the hits from One Touch of Venus, South Pacific, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music and I Do! I Do!. From one of her failures, Jenny, the three women sang “Before I Kiss the World Good-Bye” (Dietz/Schwartz) a “Before the Parade Passes By”-type uplift which they sang with gusto.
From another not-so-successful musical, Noel Coward’s Pacific 1860, a contentious production, Mr. Graae sang “Alice Is At It Again,” one of those double entendre songs that Coward did so well and one that Miss Martin found “dirty.” Her second husband—her first was Ben Hagman, father of Larry—Richard Halliday did everything he could to keep his wife’s aura “clean” effectively censoring Coward. To his credit, he was responsible for glamorizing his wife’s image by turning her on to the chic fashion designer Mainbocher, propelling her into the role of Venus.
Of course, even those who wouldn’t know Mary Martin from Ethel Merman know the classic songs she introduced or made popular on her many tours. “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love” (Cole Porter), a sardonic look at romantic love was tossed about between the three ladies, each illuminated a verse or two. “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” (Rodgers & Hammerstein) was sung with youthful swagger by Ms. Adams, the dancer of the group. “I Got Lost In His Arms” (Berlin) was lusciously sung by Ms. Skinner whose voice was probably the richest of the bunch while Lynne Halliday, the wry, witty cast member did “A Cockeyed Optimist” (Rodgers & Hammerstein). As a group they romped through “The Lonely Goatherd” (R&H) and songs from Peter Pan.
Only “Shapes,” a bit Miss Martin did on the famous Ford 50th Anniversary TV show, misfired. In it the everywoman played by Miss Martin is tortured by a narrator describing women’s fashion through the ages, forcing the poor lady to pull her hemline up and down and don all sorts of head gear. Although Mr. Graae is a charmer, this failed on two counts. First, it isn’t a campy bit and doing it drag went against its charm. Secondly, Miss Martin—who can be seen doing this on YouTube—had far better costumes to work with.
Nevertheless, Inventing Mary Martin captures a great deal of her essence. The songs will live on forever. Perhaps this show will prime the pump of popularity and begin the resurrection of Mary Martin’s exceptional life and work.
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Inventing Mary Martin – The Revue of a Lifetime (through May 25, 2014)
York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Ave. (Enter on 54th St., just east of Lexington Ave.)
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-935-5820 or www.yorktheatre.org