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Ethel Merman musical biography not yet coming up roses

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From left, Martin Grimwood, Denise Wharmby and Don Bridges appear in “Call Me Miss Birds Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman” at the Geary Theater. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Ethel Merman introduced some of the best songs ever written by the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers, including “Anything Goes,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “I Got Rhythm.”

Her career and considerable accomplishments are well worth celebrating. Sadly, “Call Me Miss Birds Eye,” onstage at the Geary Theater, is not the vehicle to do that. At least not yet, given its exceedingly optimistic description as “a pre-Broadway run.”

The title comes from a legendary Merman quote regarding her not wanting to learn new material (or un-learn existing material) in a show she considered set or, in theatrical terms, frozen. It’s just one tidbit from a patchwork quilt of Merman trivia that gets trotted out in Jack Tinker’s simplistic, by-the-numbers script.

The entire evening, presented by the Australian company Acoustic Voice, is literally by the numbers, with more than 30 songs performed sans amplification of any but the human kind. (Those accustomed to bombastic tours and taped-on face mics should note that this was once the norm for stage performances.)

Most are the expected Merman standards, but some happy surprises include “Love, Look in My Window” and “World, Take Me Back” – both written by Jerry Herman specifically for Merman’s time as the final lead (a role she initially declined) in the multi-year run of “Hello, Dolly!”

Script aside, the major problems with the show occur when Merman, as embodied by Bay Area resident Denise Wharmby, is not engaged onstage – which is surprisingly often.

In those moments, the spotlight turns to a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of narrator sidekicks who handle the story-telling, play characters in Merman’s life, and sing a surprisingly large number of songs – mostly badly.

Don Bridges is the less egregious of the two, often bringing a sly and somewhat endearing “old man of the music hall” quality to his efforts, with a gravelly voice pitched high enough to carry in the acoustic setting.

The imposingly tall Martin Grimwood, however, has no such redeeming aspects and comes across as an ill-prepared deer-in-the-spotlight.

Wharmby, once a member of the satirical cabaret trio Fascinating Aïda, has a solid stage presence though her patrician cheekbones tend to favor Merman rival Mary Martin (circa “One Touch of Venus”) more than Ethel’s more moonfaced look.

Vocally, however, Wharmby is more than capable of conveying what the company describes as Merman’s bel canto style.

A star for almost half a century, Merman’s life is rich with material and should easily make for a solidly entertaining evening. The “Birds Eye” team needs to go back to the drawing board before considering taking this production into the lady’s home turf.

Call Me Miss Birds Eye
Presented by Acoustic Voice
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays and Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; closes July 19
Tickets: $20 to $65
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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