“Our goal is not to impersonate her but to channel her,” said Mr. Sperling, the artistic director, writer and director of this entertaining event. In addition to these tasks, he also sang, played piano and as the genial host effortlessly delivered his authoritative biographical statements.
A fan of Merman’s since childhood, Sperling’s conception and execution of this show was a very well done labor of love. His patter skillfully documented her renowned charisma, saltiness and, most importantly, her unique vocal abilities.
Born in Astoria, her persona developed into a gutsy New York City broad that enchanted audiences. Between 1930 and 1970, she performed in 14 Broadway shows, all of which ran at least six months, as well as appearing in films, television and concerts before her death at the age of 76 in 1984.
A cast of excellent vocalists performed a diverse selection of standards and rarities associated with her career often with new musical arrangements.
“Blow, Gabriel, Blow” by Cole Porter from Anything Goes (1934) became a thrilling Southern Gospel number with the physically and vocally commanding NaTasha Yvette Williams’ dynamic full-voiced performance. Ms. Williams also scored with the naughty “Eadie Was A Lady” by Nacio Herb Brown, Richard A. Whiting, and B. G. De Sylva from Take A Chance (1932). Her rambunctious “You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun” from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946) was uproarious. With Clarke Thorell who wore a battered hat and assumed the mannerisms of Jimmy Durante, she did an amusing duet of the specialty material “You Say The Nicest Things” by Dick Manning and Carroll Carroll from 1950.
Resplendent in a dark blue double-breasted suit, the charming Mr. Thorell with his expressive tenor voice, handsomely scrappy facial features and limber physicality had the bouncy visual quality of a 1930’s performer and his appearances added considerably to the show. His “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown from George White’s Scandals of 1931 was dreamily simple. “Anything Goes” raucously demonstrated that he is a superb interpreter of Cole Porter and was that proven again by two euphoric duets written by the songwriter: “You’re the Top” with Emily Skinner and “It’s De-Lovely” with Julia Murney. There also his terrific solo of Porter’s “Do I Love You?” from Du Barry Was a Lady (1939).
Merman was friends with Porter and starred in five of his shows. His work was well represented throughout including Ms. Murney’s powerful rendition of “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor)” from Red, Hot and Blue (1936). She was also expert on “Small World” from Jule Styne’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy (1959). “They Say It’s Wonderful” from Annie Get Your Gun was a lovely duet with her and Sperling. She obtained all of the comedy there was out of the novelty song, “It’s the Animal in Me,” by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel that was cut from the 1934 film, We’re Not Dressing.
Ms. Skinner marvelously imparted all of the sadness of Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Her “Some People” from Gypsy was suitably demonstrative. Most effective was her sweet treatment of “World Take Me Back” by Jerry Herman. That was a Hello Dolly (1964) song written for Merman but cut from the show after she declined to star in it due to her fatigue with Broadway long runs. It was restored for her when she took over as the last Dolly in 1970, and that was her Broadway farewell.
The youthful and appealing Lindsay Mendez conveyed the young Merman’s verve. Ms. Mendez opened the show with a lively “I Got Rhythm” from Merman’s Broadway debut in the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy (1930). She was breezily comical for “You’re a Builder-Upper” from the revue Life Begins at 8:40 (1934) by Ira Gershwin, E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy was typically emotional and brassy. She and Thorell performed a warm duet of “Old Fashioned Wedding” from Annie Get Your Gun.
The company’s group effort of Irving Berlin’s 1932 song, “How Deep Is the Ocean,” was quite stirring. That was followed by the first act’s finale, a cute audience sing-a-long treatment with the cast in Porter’s “Friendship” from Du Barry Was a Lady with the lyrics displayed on a screen above the stage.
Also on the large screen illustrative slides of Merman’s career were projected at various times as well as highly enjoyable video clips. These included a 1931 short film, her guest starring roles on the situation comedies That Girl and The Lucy Show, and her playfully cantankerous duet with Miss Piggy of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” from Annie Get Your Gun on The Muppets Show.
The pacing and quality of the performances, projections and narrative all were compellingly unified by Mr. Sperling’s smooth direction with assistance by associate director Lainie Sakakura who also created the energetic choreography.
That many of these songs are so familiar yet so sounded so fresh was due to the sensational musicianship on display. Jeffrey Klitz was the music director and on piano. The band was comprised of Jeremy Clayton on woodwinds, Cenovia Cummins on violin, Kevin Kuhn on guitar, Pete Donovan on bass, and Warren Odze on drums.
Of course, the rousing finale was the company performing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Annie Get Your Gun. The twist was that the first half was done unamplified to simulate musical stage performance before microphones and which characterized the era when Ethel Merman began.
Besides all of the songwriters who adored her due to her colossal talent, musical giants such as Arturo Toscanini and Luciano Pavarotti held her in high regard. This affectionate tribute did justice to her legendary career.
92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Everything’s Coming Up Ethel: The Ethel Merman Songbook” (April 16 – 18, 2016)
92nd Street Y
Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1395 Lexington Avenue at 96th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-415-5500 or visit http://www.92y.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission