On Theater: Ethel Merman hits Playhouse

In Laguna Beach, Broadway (the street) stops just before it gets to the Laguna Playhouse, whereupon it becomes Laguna Canyon Road.

Next week, although the playhouse isn't on Broadway, Broadway will be at the playhouse. "Ethel Merman's Broadway," that is.

OK, Ethel Merman has been singing with the celestial choir since 1984, but she's still recognized as the queen of the Broadway musical. Only a few singers (Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli) ever were capable of bouncing a song off the back wall like this lady could.

On Sept. 8, "Ethel Merman's Broadway" opens a limited two-week engagement at the Playhouse with the brassy vocal tones of Rita McKenzie showing her audiences why there's still no business like show business. The show is ticketed through Sept. 19.

"With the huge interest in Broadway that stems from the popular PBS series, audiences want to know more than ever what the great stars of Broadway's golden era were all about," said show producer Scott Stander. "Rita McKenzie began performing this show more than 15 years ago and discovered that people really responded to the recreation of the experience with Ethel Merman, who as a performer was all but a force of nature on stage. Rita McKenzie fits the bill perfectly."

Ethel Merman ruled the Broadway stage for the better part of four decades. She introduced songs from some of our great composers — Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerry Herman.

I never witnessed it, but an Army buddy of mine related that when he saw "Gypsy" and Merman closed the first act with a dynamic rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," she was forced by the audience's fervent response to come back mid-show for a curtain call.

In the Laguna show, McKenzie will offer that number, along with such Merman standards as "I Got Rhythm," "Anything Goes," "It's Delovely" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" among 20 songs popularized by the late, great star. And, yes, she'll take "Rose's Turn," the climactic song from "Gypsy," as well as the defiant "Some People" from the same show.

McKenzie not only impersonates Ethel Merman, she's followed in her footsteps, headlining such productions as "Annie Get Your Gun," "Anything Goes" and "Gypsy." She's on the original cast album of the off-Broadway musical "Ruthless" (recently revived at the Newport Theater Arts Center with Orange County's own Ethel Merman, Adriana Sanchez).

Along the way, McKenzie has played Aldonza in "Man of La Mancha," Domina in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and Ruth in "The Pirates of Penzance," among many others.

If You Go

What: "Ethel Merman's Broadway"

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays Sept. 8 to 19

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road

Cost: $36 to $70

Information: (949) 497-2787, ext. 229, http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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