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Rita McKenzie Knocks Ethel Merman Out of the Park

Ethel Merman's Broadway
written by Christopher Powich & Rita McKenzie
directed by Powich
El Portal Mainstage
through February 27

Actress/singer Rita McKenzie accomplishes something quite rare: she channels the charisma and voice of Broadway legend Ethel Merman. This is more than just capturing the essence of a character; in McKenzie's case, it is really becoming that person. She looks like Merman, sounds like her, sings like her and has all the body movements down pat. In this latest version of Ethel Merman's Broadway, that she has been doing for some 20 years, there are some delightful additions, including a 7 piece onstage orchestra, a huge video screen and several colorful costume changes. There's also more dialogue about the 4 marriages, Merman's daughter, who died under questionable circumstances, and a more casual and realistic look at the woman, whom many feared and despised, as well as adored. Dynamic McKenzie lets it all hang out and makes us feel like we are in the presence of a star and a lady.

There's a story, then a song, a joke, a song... as she retells the highlights of her career in interview fashion, as there's a supposed film to be made of her life, and the pace is never dull, or the anecdotes fake. Mitzi Gaynor, a lifelong friend of Merman, since she costarred with her in There's No Business Like Show Business, introduced the evening on opening night and noted that on the opening of Gypsy on Broadway in 1959, as Merman made her entrance down the aisle as Mama Rose, she stopped and greeted Gaynor in the audience - Hello, Mitzalah! - on her way to the stage. The woman was what she was. Later during one of McKenzie's stories she stops, goes over to a gentleman sitting in the audience stage right, reaches into her bra, takes out a $5 bill, hands it to the man and says, "The next time you come here to the theatre, tell them to give you a better seat!" It's something Merman probably would have done. Nothing phony about this woman and McKenzie enacts it beautifully. There's also a very funny appearance in Act II of a black poodle named Whoppie during the Call Me Madam segment. Mckenzie leads her in, gives her a chew toy to play with, which the dog ignores and Merman shrugs and lets her run off, showing once again the star's gutsy, nonchalant, down-to-earth side. Merman was loud and never let you forget who she was. Cole Porter once said she was like "a band going by". Yet there was a somewhat softer more sensitive side that McKenzie does not let us forget either. As far as her daughter is concerned, Merman wants her story told accurately on film!

Song highlights of the evening spanning the Gerhswins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerry Herman, who wrote her a special song to sing when she starred in Hello Dolly! are Merman favorites: "You're the Top", "I Got Rhythm", "Anything Goes", "I Get a Kick Out of You", "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun", "There's No Business like Show Business", "They Say It's Wonderful", "Alexander's Ragtime Band", "The Hostess with the Mostess", "Some People", "Everything's Coming Up Roses", and the rarely heard Herman song "World Take Me Back", all belted with gusto, in great Mermanesque style and flare, proving without question 'Broadway was King and Ethel happened to be Queen'.

The orchestra, under the baton of musical director David Snyder, is terrific, the visuals of the real Merman fun to watch in the background and the velcro changes quick and delightful, but it is McKenzie that steals the scene and wins our hearts, making the legend Ethel Merman "...still crowing, still going strong".


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