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THEATER REVIEW: “Ethel Merman’s Broadway” is a winner

Any singer who can hold a note for 16 bars and be heard in the back of the balcony without any vocal training or even a microphone is OK with me.

And Ethel Merman, née Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, of Astoria, Queens – aka “la Merm!” – was more than OK; she was the darling of Broadway musical composers for 40 years (1930 to 1970), cast in shows with music by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

She retired from Broadway in 1970 (and died in 1984), but now you can hear Rita McKenzie as Merman in a nostalgic/biographical show that intersperses songs from many of her most famous roles with bits of her life story.

“Ethel Merman’s Broadway” plays through April 8 at Escondido’s Welk Resorts Theatre, backed by a fine seven-man combo of musicians.

The songs are hung on a manufactured “plot” whose premise is that Hollywood plans a movie about Merman’s life. La Merm’s response: “What took ‘em so long?”

You’ll hear songs by George Gershwin “who really put me on the map” by casting her in “Girl Crazy” in 1930. It was Gershwin who made her promise never to work with a voice teacher, and she kept that promise.

McKenzie tears into “I Got Rhythm” and shows she’s not only got rhythm but stage presence – and really gaudy costumes.

Merman gave Cole Porter a hit with “Anything Goes;” Porter went on to write four more shows for her. She got her gun and made a lot of money for Irving Berlin when he cast her as Annie Oakley in 1946, and McKenzie sings a welcome Berlin medley including “ You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” “They Say that Falling In Love is Wonderful” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night.”

McKenzie’s Merman talks about her four marriages and the two children she had by second husband Robert Levitt – and speaks about the tragic death of daughter Ethel by overdose.

The best musical set in the show is the hardest one: songs from Jule Styne’s “Gypsy,” Merman’s crowning achievement on the musical stage.

McKenzie has toured some years with this show – in fact, it’s been dubbed the longest-running one-woman show in theatrical history, right up there in longevity with Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight.” And she demonstrates the pipes and the chops to do it, even if she does betray some intonation problems in the lower register. Get ready for an old-fashioned corny script, too.

But La Merm! was a phenomenon whose like will not be seen again. If you’re in the mood for an affectionate trip down memory lane, check out Rita McKenzie in “Ethel Merman’s Broadway.”

The details

“Ethel Merman’s Broadway” plays through April 8 at Welk Resorts Theatre San Diego, 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido.

Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 1 pm; Thursday at 8 pm; Sunday at 6:30 pm.

For tickets, call (888) 802-7469.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.