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CABARET REVIEW : Brassy and Wisecracking ‘Ethel!’ Belts Out Songs for Merman Fans

Ethel Merman has materialized at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Cinegrill. She’ll be there for two more weeks. Normally, this would be news because La Merm died four years ago. But in the brassy timbre and flapping arms of Rita McKenzie, Merman is alive. It isn’t Elvis who’s back. It’s Ethel.

“Call Me Ethel!” is a one-woman, musical-comedy monologue that sandwiches Merman wisecracks and anecdotes between those great Broadway tunes written for her by Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, Styne.

“Cole Porter said I sounded like a band going by,” notes McKenzie’s Merman. Leave it to Porter to find the one word to describe Merman. “Call Me Ethel!” could also be called a band, though its only instruments are Ted Pinkston’s piano and McKenzie’s belting.

McKenzie and director Christopher Powich have co-written a zesty, 70-minute cabaret treat with the potential to be a one-woman musical drama--if the creators expand Merman’s character to better buttress the songs.

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In fact, this show could replace the movie biography Hollywood developed but never made. Merman speculates here about why it stalled: “What are they gonna do? Get some look-alike, sound-alike to play me? And not Patti Lupone either.”

McKenzie, 4l, who’s from New Jersey and who premiered her Merman salute in a Gotham club early this year, is indeed a sound-alike. Her interpretation of the introspective soliloquy “Rose’s Turn,” from “Gypsy,” is the production’s knockout number and, dramatically, it signals the actress in McKenzie.

Physically, McKenzie is taller and larger than Merman, but no matter--McKenzie’s nuances, her assertive ruby lips, and that scrunched-up hair style is “De-Lovely” Merman right down to “The Animal in Me.”

We hear 23 songs and several cracks about show business rivals, co-stars, and husbands (on fourth hubby Ernest Borgnine, a marriage that lasted a week: “He would have made a wonderful hypnotist”).

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The narrative, some of which is invented, is thin but bursting with promise. Merman frequently talks to her agent “Louie” and to “Irving” (composer Berlin). She snarls a lot, but what we remember is her visit to a dying Cole Porter, most dear to her, and a heartfelt description of her second husband, Bob Levitt: “He had never even seen a Broadway show--he liked me for me. But I think somebody at a party called him Mr. Merman"--and that was that.

It’s the slant on Merman’s later years that fuels quiet curiosity. Relying on at least three biographies, McKenzie and Powich dramatize Merman as a distracted mother who haltingly recalls the sleeping pill and alcohol-related death of her daughter, “Little Ethel,” and who off-handedly describes her son as “Little Bobby, here in California doing odd jobs.”

Near the end, McKenzie’s piercing diction enhances “Blow a kiss, take a bow, everything’s coming up roses.” The show then segues to the reality of Merman in her last years (interpreted graciously and purposefully by McKenzie), playing pops concerts and volunteering “Wednesday afternoons in the gift section” at a Manhattan hospital.

No doubt Merman herself would have liked this show, especially the stingers about Roz Russell. As McKenzie/Merman says, “Ruby Keeler I wasn’t.”

At 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Tuesdays through Fridays, 8:30 p.m., Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., through Dec. 4. Tickets: $15-$20. (213) 466-7000.


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