Queens born Ethel Merman (1908-1984) sang publicly from the age of nine. Completing school, determined to forge a show business career, she performed nights after full time work as a stenographer. Merman was discovered in a club, offered a contract by Paramount, and made a series of short, cookie-cutter-plotted films.
Her breakout theatrical role in “Girl Crazy” put the incipient icon at the forefront of musical theater transition from operetta to jazz-based scores. The orchestra pit of George and Ira Gershwin’s show held Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Gene Krupa. One review said “She can hold a note longer than The Chase Manhattan Bank.” Merman starred in 14 Broadway successes.
We learn all this during Ted Sperling’s introduction to an evening of Merman numbers almost none of which represent the spirit of the artist. When the host informs us the company will not try to impersonate the celebrant, but rather share the joy of her singing, we assume that means not imitating her vocal style.
Instead, slowed and weighted musical arrangements with dissonant instrumental solos by otherwise good musicians and two a capella choral numbers that can’t be further from the singer’s essence, make the presentation seem longer than its almost 2 ½ hours. A sing-along with lyrics projected is assigned to a complex a song and quickly loses the audience. Direction dictates that naturally animated numbers are performed almost stock still. (Several artists’ tendencies to put their hands in pockets doesn’t help.) Hard working vocalists seem tethered.
Having said that, Sperling does deliver a sense of Merman’s trajectory, her becoming a sassy broad who could hold her own with the guys, professional idiosyncrasies, and personal challenges. We’re privy to a couple of priceless film clips, some nifty anecdotes, and there are entertaining musical exceptions.
Ted Sperling, Lindsay Mendez
Lindsay Mendez, perhaps the closest reflection of La Merman not only in lung power, but in energy, pluck, and unaffected presentation, offers such as “You’re a Builder-Upper” (Ira Gershwin/EY Yip Harburg/Harold Arlen from Life Begins at 8:40)- crisply articulated and sparkling with exemplary player-piano like accompaniment and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne from Gypsy, a musical that was turned down by Irving Berlin) wherein some octave changes are very Merman-like, but performance is ultimately her own.
Natasha Yvette Williams gives us “Eadie Was a Lady” with spot-on instincts when to sing or speak a lyric, big eyes, rolling hips, and a bit of an appealing growl. (BG De Sylva/Nacio Herb Brown/Richard A Whiting from Take A Chance!) Cole Porter’s “Blow, Gabriel Blow” (from Anything Goes), on the other hand, is curiously bereft of exuberance until 2/3 of the way in. Undoubtedly not her fault. Williams preaches with zest and aptitude looking in audience faces.
Natasha Yvette Williams
Julia Murney’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “Down in The Depths On the Ninetieth Floor” is too big and depicts misplaced sexuality. (from Red, Hot, and Blue for which contested billing was decided by printing Merman and Jimmy Durante’s names graphically crossed.) Though the vocalist has a good instrument with fine control, she overacts. “Small World,” however, accompanied only by Kevin Kuhn’s guitar, is lilting and sincere. (Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne from Gypsy)
The excellent Charke Thorell sings a jazz-age tinted “Anything Goes” (Cole Porter from the musical of the same name) with some easy scat and a breezy, cutely directed “You’re the Top” (Cole Porter from Anything Goes) with Emily Skinner. His interpretation of “Do I Love You?” following Sperling’s description of tragedies in Merman’s life, is handicapped by clear instruction to appear inconsolable. Vocal is pristine. (Cole Porter from DuBarry Was a Lady)
Clarke Thorell, Emily Skinner
Emily Skinner’s “Some People” is pithy and clarion without over-reaching. (Stephen Sondheim/ Jule Styne from Gypsy) Her version of “A Lady Needs a Change” (Dorothy Fields/Arthur Schwartz from Stars in Your Eyes) is aply wry. The rarely performed “World Take Me Back” has just the right tone. (Jerry Herman, written for Merman in Hello Dolly, cut from the original Carol Channing version when Merman at first turned the show down.) Skinner makes lyrics authentic.
Perhaps the highlight of the evening “You Say the Nicest Things” is jauntily performed by Williams and Thoreau AS Merman and Jimmy Durante for whom the song was written. Both vocal and movement are charming. Thorell excels. (Dick Manning/Carroll Carroll- special material)
Jeffrey Klitz, Natasha Yvette Williams, Clarke Thorell
An experiment in which two “double duets” – “You’re Just in Love” (Irving Berlin from Call Me Madam) and “An Old Fashioned Wedding” (Berlin from Annie Get Your Gun) are sung first, separately, and then simultaneously, surprisingly works as novel discovery. Both songs are sung in counterpoint, yet have such similar construction, lyrics sync. Skinner and Williams perform the first, Mendez and Thorell, the second-this delightfully expressive.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Julia Murney, Clarke Thorell, Lindsay Mendez, Ted Sperling, Natasha Yvette Williams, Emily Skinner
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
Everything’s Coming Up Ethel-The Ethel Merman Songbook
Ted Sperling- Artistic Director/Stage Director/Writer/Host
Jeffrey Klitz-Music Director/Piano
Lainie Sakakura-Associate Director/Choreographer
Theresa L. Kaufman Concert Hall
92 Y at 92nd and Lexington Avenue
NEXT UP:I Have Confidence-Rodgers After Hammerstein– May 21-23