Ethel Merman's Life in Jaunty Revue

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

CALL ME ETHEL! Musical review with book by Christopher Powich and Rita McKenzie. Directed by Mr. Powich. Starring Miss McKenzie. At the American Jewish Theatre. `CALL ME ETHEL!'' is as informal, outgoing, and emphatic as its title. With Rita McKenzie in dazzling form as the legendary Ethel Merman, the newly arrived entertainment makes the American Jewish Theatre on West 26th Street one of the liveliest spots in town. Whether wisecracking her way through the Merman memoir, belting out unforgettable Merman hits, or merely chatting about life on Broadway, Miss McKenzie creates a jaunty, full-length portrait.

She and writer-director Christopher Powich have cast the material in the form of a one-sided conversation in which the Queens, N.Y., native recalls for Lou Irwin, her first agent-manager, the events she wishes him to include in a film biography. Merman/McKenzie also draws the spectators into the story and makes them her confidants. As Perle Mesta in ``Call Me Madam,'' she even nourishes the audience with a tray of cheese dip and crackers along with the menu of Mermanisms. Who could ask for anything more?

``Call Me Ethel!'' is first and last a tribute to a great musicial comedy artist for whom ``there's no business like show business.'' Expanded from an earlier cabaret act, the program embraces many of the shows and numbers associated with the Merman legend, from ``Girl Crazy'' (1930) to ``Gypsy'' (1959). Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, and Styne are among the composers reprised and remembered.

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Merman recalls how the young Ethel dared to suggest an improved rhythm for ``I Got Rhythm'' and how, in ``Gypsy,'' playing the role that became her favorite, she ``didn't want to do the usual Merman musical. I wanted to act.'' In the spirit of that realized ambition, Miss McKenzie makes ``Rose's Turn'' extraordinarily powerful and moving.

Along the way, she evokes the star described as ``sassy and brassy and hard as nails but with a heart of gold'' and impresses the spectator with her remarkable resemblance to Merman.

``Call Me Ethel!'' which is scheduled to run through July 2, has been smartly costumed by Dale Wibbin, with a hospitable set by Russell Pyle, and lighting by Robert Bessoir. Musical director Peter Blue is the very supportive piano accompanist.

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