Rita McKenzie's entertaining solo show pays tribute to one of Broadway's most dazzling and unforgettable superstars, Ethel Merman, who died in 1982. It also functions as a solid star vehicle for McKenzie, who portrays the iconic steamroller Merman, relating a loosely structured biographical narrative and performing the celebrated diva's greatest songs. McKenzie has periodically toured in this show between other jobs since its 1989 Off-Broadway premiere. She has made revisions along the way, in collaboration with her director and co-writer, Christopher Powich. They put a fresh spin on the recent spate of autobiographical solo musicals, such as those of Elaine Stritch, Barbara Cook, Beatrice Arthur, and Donna MacKechnie. McKenzie convincingly channels the famous belter, tapping into her humorous, egocentric, and notoriously brassy persona.
The concept presents Merman in her later years, performing for a live audience, and speaking of a movie being made about her life. This allows her to rummage through her figurative scrapbook, skimming over the highlights of her personal life and career, the anecdotes smoothly leading to performances of her legendary songs. Her initial meetings with George Gershwin ("I Got Rhythm"), Cole Porter ("Anything Goes"), and Irving Berlin ("There's No Business Like Show Business") are amusingly related. She sardonically speaks of her multiple marriages, including the final one with Ernest Borgnine, which lasted only five weeks. She describes her less-than-stellar film career, which ended with her turns as an overbearing mother-in-law in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and a demented man who thinks he's Ethel Merman in Airplane. She introduces a fleeting tinge of darkness toward the end with questions as to whether Merman's death was a suicide. Yet the main attraction is the greatest-hits parade, which McKenzie invariably delivers with aplomb. But where is "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy? Ron Snyder provides superb music direction and accompaniment. Eric Winterling designed a lovely spangled-black dress for McKenzie, periodically spruced up with handsome accessories. Doin' what comes naturally, McKenzie pulls off a sure-fire crowd pleaser.
"Ethel Merman's Broadway," presented by James A. Blackman III, Steven Ullman, Go Gi Go Productions and Scott Stander at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. Tue.-Fri. 8 pm, Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. (Also Jan. 29, 8 pm and Jan. 30, 7 pm.) Jan. 21-30. $40. (310) 372-4477. Also at the San Fernando Valley Playhouse at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Tue.-Fri. 8 pm, Sat. 2 & 8 pm, Sun. 2 & 7 pm. Feb. 2-13. $40. (818) 764-2400.