ETHEL MERMAN’S BROADWAY by Christopher Powich and Rita McKenzie – El Portal Theatre – Los Angeles (North Hollywood) Theater Review

by Tony Frankel on February 22, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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Prior to the opening of Ethel Merman’s Broadway at the El Portal, Mitzi Gaynor, close friend to Merman, comes walking out to introduce the show (don’t expect Mitzi at subsequent performances). As Mitzi recalls what a larger-than-life character Ethel could be, an audience member said, “We can’t hear you.” Without missing a beat, Gaynor sassed, “I heard that, you bitch!” Yet it did not offend. As with Merman, Gaynor’s reputation as a bold and brassy broad is irrefutable, but those of us who came to see Rita McKenzie’s impersonation of Merman as the big-mouthed, no-holds-barred, salty dame will be disappointed. Certainly, McKenzie has the same vocal power as the first lady of the musical stage; in fact, the iconic vibrato is so commanding that she could be heard in the back row…of another theatre. Her near-perfect mimicry of Merman is uncanny and impressive. But (and this is a BIG but), this is Ethel Merman on an alternate plane; she is in 2011 Hollywood as a movie of her life is in preparation. Thus, when Ethel mentions modern references such as “youtube,” we are taken out of Merman’s Universe as the First Lady of Broadway. By doing so, McKenzie (with co-writer and director Christopher Powich) prevents herself from creating anything more than a safe tribute, when it had the potential to be a moving play as well. A tribute is fine if one wishes to jostle an octogenarian’s memory, but younger folk may find themselves craving a more substantive show, not just a string of songs with some interjected Ethel-isms (“They call me Birdseye, because when I do a show, it’s frozen!”).

Miss McKenzie belts Merman’s best showstoppers chronologically, aided by the sterling pianist David Snyder and his fantastic 6-piece band; in-between numbers, she offers recollections that are frustratingly lacking in insight or shrewdness. I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea that The Merm was Episcopalian, but the script stuck to general information when it should have been more anecdotal. In Act Two, McKenzie (now fully engaging the audience to speak back to her) demonstrated why the Broadway Diva’s escapades needed to be told via the ribaldry she was known for: she asks if anyone in the house is under ten. No? Good. Then she tells the tale of Loretta Young coming up with the idea of people depositing a quarter into a box every time they cussed; Merman pulled out a bill and said, “Here’s five bucks. Now go f— yourself!” I tell you, the energy in the El Portal Theatre was positively electric. Clearly, this show needed more of the dirty jokes and vulgar stories. The only other time that the energy soared was when McKenzie brought out her dog, Whoopie, for a few minutes. Ethel Merman’s Broadway may well showcase McKenzie’s talent (and those delirious, Vegas-style costumes by Eric Winterling), but the 99% G-rated, Wikipedia version of Ethel’s life left much to be desired.

tonyfrankel @

Ethel Merman’s Broadway
scheduled to close February 27 at time of publication
for tickets, visit

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