Regional Reviews: Seattle
I'm Flying! The Mary Martin Story
Also see David's review of Good Boys
One of the great Broadway superstars of the forties through the early sixties, Mary Martin had a rich life as well as a fascinating career. I'm Flying! - The Mary Martin Story is a well intentioned, tuneful cabaret tribute that only occasionally succeeds in capturing the star's vocal and performance style, and falters in realistically depicting the complex and intimate personal and professional relationship between Martin and her longtime second husband Richard Halliday.
Tricia Countryman has devised the show, and plays Martin as well. She has culled numerous autobiographical tidbits about the star from Martin's engaging autobiography My Heart Belongs. The show opens with actor Jeff Thirloway, as Halliday, entering and launching into the Peter Pan song which gives the show its title, but Countryman enters and reminds him that he can't play Peter Pan. As he sulks off for a quick change of costume, Countryman introduces herself as Mary Martin, the legendary, deceased Broadway star. Though this tongue-in-cheek moment provoked laughter from the opening night crowd, it set a curious, semi-mocking tone at the top of the show, which Countryman and her director Diane Zebert might have been better off avoiding.
On an impersonation level, Countryman does have the high and low range of the younger Martin, but none of her endearing vocal eccentricities (such as the way she would scoop up into a note) or Texas twang. And when playing opposite Thirloway, who takes on the songs of such Martin co-stars as John Raitt and Ezio Pinza, Countryman plays out front and rarely acknowledges him. The real Martin always played off her stage partners, from the remarkably self-focused Ethel Merman in the famous Ford's Anniversary show duet to Noel Coward. These performances are still accessible on video (the Martin/Merman duet just released on DVD in the last month in fact) and should have served as a reference source for this show. The autobiographical stuff is skimmed over, from Martin's first marriage to Ben Hagman which produced TV icon Larry Hagman, and fleeting references to shows that Martin did which are not musically represented in I'm Flying, such as Lute Song and Pacific 1860. The fact that Martin and Halliday had a child, Heller, together is never even mentioned, and Halliday's passing several years before Martin's is also never referenced.
Musically, after a rather coy rendition of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," Countryman has her moments in a South Pacific set including "Twin Soliloquies" and "Wonderful Guy," dueling lyrically with Thirloway on the Weill/Nash One Touch of Venus classic "Speak Low," and comedically on " Anything You Can Do" from Annie Get Your Gun.
She vamps adeptly through "Flaming Agnes" from I Do!, I Do! , but the chance for an audience sing-along on "Do-Re-Mi" is squandered by that song's omission from the show. Better the star and director had included that song rather than arbitrarily including "I Have Confidence," penned for Julie Andrews in the film of The Sound of Music (which Martin never sang, or even professed a fondness for). Where Countryman and Martin really connect is in the Peter Pan numbers ("I'm Flying," Never Never Land") and in the show's brightest moment, getting a delightful pair of kids from the audience up to do "I Gotta Crow" with her.
Thirloway displays a rich, robust baritone on "Some Enchanted Evening" and a dapper comic charm in Robert Preston's big solo "A Well Known Fact" from I Do!, I Do!. He is also good sport enough to don not only the Peter Pan costume, but also a Tinkerbell get-up later in the show.
Pianist Rob Jones and guitarist Dana Countryman provide solid musical back up throughout, never overwhelming the performer's vocals. I am convinced that Tricia Countryman could successfully revamp this material into a show that is more honest in terms of its depiction of the fascinating relationship between Martin and Halliday, include more of the Martin songbook, and above all, take a look at those Mary Martin treasures on tape. I bet if she did, I'm Flying just might soar.
I'm Flying! - The Mary Martin Story plays Friday evenings though October 22 at Thumper's Oak Room, 1500 East Madison, on Seattle's Capital Hill, with dinner seating at 7 pm, cocktail seating at 8 pm, and an 8:30 pm showtime. For reservations call (206) 328-3200.- David-Edward Hughes