BWW Reviews: Heather Carvel Honors a Legend in WTC's World Premiere of BIG VOICE: THE ETHEL MERMAN EXPERIENCE
They say that everyone has a twin somewhere in the world. Well, I'm sure that Ethel Merman is proudly smiling down at hers as Heather Carvel boldly tackles the role of a lifetime in the World Premiere of Warehouse Theatre Company's BIG VOICE: THE ETHEL MERMAN EXPERIENCE. Directed, conceived and written by Kristofer Green, every look, nuance, expression, and style is exactly dead-on, from hair to dress to even the way Ethel raised her eyebrows and smiled after a song.
This biographical musical follows the life of legendary Ethel Merman, who was born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman, worked as a secretary, and was known for her big, brassy, belting voice without any singing lessons. As Merman, Carvel reminisces about her family upbringing, career beginnings, profanity, and intimate stories of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Julie Styne and more, including how Mr. Gershwin changed her life by telling her, "Never go to a singing teacher in your life, because you don't want to ruin what you have."
Director and writer, Kristofer Green, does a marvelous job of weaving Merman's classic songs through a biographical story, with refreshing breaks of comedy, surprise guests and satisfying choreography. Although the timeline skips around somewhat, we are transported to an era dominated by "the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage."
Set in a nightclub and wonderfully accompanied by Pamela Hootman-Glazier on the piano and Rick Soriano on percussion, Merman gets surprise visits from old friends Donald O'Connor (played by the adorable Cody Michael Shope), and dear friend Mary Martin (real life bestie, Elisabeth Tate), who stole the Tony Award from her for her role in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Merman lovingly jokes, "How are you going to buck a nun?"
Shope shows off his strong pipes and smooth tap moves in "Anything You Can Do," while the two blend flawlessly in "You're the Top." Tate and Merman offer terrific chemistry in "Friendship" and in one of the show-stopping numbers, "Together Wherever We Go."
A vocal powerhouse herself, Heather Carvel sings her face off in an iconic role that would seem very intimidating to most. Favorites include GYPSY standards, such as "Some People," "Rose's Turn," and "Everything's Coming Up Roses." Carvel certainly does her homework and captures the true essence of a legendary performer, bringing honor and credibility to her incomparable work. Although no one can precisely replicate the transcendent quality and tone of the great Ethel Merman, Carvel makes vocal choices that showcase her own voice while still giving credence to a superstar. Her comedic portrayal is spot-on as we fall in love with this modestly pretentious girl from Queens with the great big voice.
My biggest criticism is that if Ethel Merman could project to the balcony of a vast Broadway theatre - full orchestra - with no microphone or re-enforcement equipment, surely Carvel can reach the 4th row of the Van Fleet Theatre with only a pianist and drummer. I would suggest losing the mics and allowing the power and pureness of the vocals to pierce through the audience, just as Merman did.
WTC's BIG VOICE: THE ETHEL MERMAN EXPERIENCE recounts a joyful trip down memory lane from the undisputed biggest powerhouse of the Golden Age of American musical theatre. Congrats to all involved in this production!
The World Premiere of Warehouse Theatre Company's BIG VOICE: THE ETHEL MERMAN EXPERIENCE is currently running through June 29, 2014 at the Van Fleet Theater. For tickets and more information, visit: http://www.warehousetheatre.org/#!big-voice/c1m1y