Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Call Me Miss Birds Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman
Acoustic Voice Theatre

Also see Richard's review of Company and Eddie's reviews of Life Is a Dream and Gruesome Playground Injuries


Martin Grimwood, Denise Wharmby, and Don Bridges
When I first heard that an Australian company was going to produce a show about the great Ethel Merman, I was elated. They were going to rent the Geary Theatre and it was advertised as a pre-Broadway performance—we were going to see the nostalgic show before it hit New York. The show was written by the outstanding Londoner theatre critic Jack Tinker (who died in 1996) and would be produced by the go-getting Acoustic Voice Theatre of Australia, which presents shows without the use of amplification. This would be perfect for the artist who would portray the legendary star, since Ethel Merman's diction was perfect and she could always be heard to the last row of balcony.

I was excited to see this show, called Call Me Miss Birds Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman. (The title refers to the star rejecting a change Irving Berlin wanted to make within a week of the opening. She unnerved him with "Call me Miss Bird Eye. It's frozen.") I first fell "in love" with Ethel Merman way back in the '40s when my parents took me to see her in Du Barry Was a Lady. Her performance turned me on to Broadway musicals. Over the years I saw her in Panama Hattie, Something for the Boys, Call Me Madam and Gypsy. So I definitely wanted to see the show at the Geary.

I did realize that this was a work in progress, but it certainly was not what I expected. Something was terribly wrong. Call Me Miss Birds Eye lacks all of the brassiness, boldness, and absolute energy of the big-voiced Merman. The show has no zest. Yes, Denise Wharmby, who is a local resident, has a pleasant, clear voice, but she could never be Ethel Merman. She is backed up Don Bridges and Martin Grimwood, who do stupid scenes relating to Merman's life. They just don't work and should be scrapped. Don Bridges does remind me of an old time vaudeville performer on the order of the late George M. Cohan. He has that jaunty walk and, of the two, when he sang sort of like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady only with an Australian accent, I did not mind it. Martin Grimwood is completely miscast. He has no abiding aspects when he sings, and he performs with no emotion, especially on his two romantic songs. I will say that when all three sing songs such as "There's No Business Like Show Business" they are harmoniously energizing. Graham Clarke is very good tickling the ivories as their back-up.

There are amusing Merman stories told by the two men between songs, but I am not sure what would help this train wreck. Maybe some projections, Denise Wharmby just singing an evening of Merman's songs without being the legendary singer, getting two other people who can sing, a smaller theatre, or maybe change to a cabaret act—but then it would not really be a show about Ethel Merman.

Call Me Miss Birds Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman runs at A.C.T.'S Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco through July 18th. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Photo: Kevin Berne

- Richard Connema


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