My earliest recollection of the late showbiz legend Ethel Merman dates back to an early-1960s episode of The Lucy Show, in which zany Lucy Carmichael (Lucille Ball) meets the Merm and assumes that she is an impostor. When the Broadway superstar belts out one of her famous foghorn crescendos, Lucy insults her by saying she's not even close to the real thing, offering to demonstrate how it should be done. Rita McKenzie sometimes has the reverse problem. People have a hard time believing she isn't the real thing. Chatting with her on the phone for the first time, one has an uncanny sense of déjà vu, seeing visions of Merman's earthy Mama Rose from Gypsy. And it goes beyond mere vocal inflection. McKenzie's boisterous, jolly manner recalls the larger-than-life personality of the red-hot mama that I remember so vividly from film clips and TV variety-show appearances. McKenzie, who hails from New Jersey, has enjoyed a long and varied career, and, during the past 16 years, she has continued touring in her biographical solo musical vehicle, Ethel Merman's Broadway, between other jobs. Besides TV and film work, McKenzie's list of stage credits includes co-starring with Barbara Eden in The Female Odd Couple, and playing great Merman roles in musical revivals such as Annie Get Your Gun. Her Merman tribute, which has morphed from a cabaret show into more of a theatre piece, originally premiered Off-Broadway. McKenzie is currently bringing it back to L.A. following a 15-year absence.
There's a bit of irony in that McKenzie has thus far not performed this piece in L.A. since its initial acclaimed local gigs at the Cinegrill and the Pasadena Playhouse, considering that L.A. has been her home base for more than a decade. "It's great to get out of my own bed every day and go to work on the stage. I live close to the El Portal. But I go wherever the tour gets booked," she explains. Engagements have included Las Vegas, Carnegie Hall, Atlantic City, Toronto, London, and Japan. "About two years ago, this company [Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities] began considering this engagement, and it has now found a slot in its season that works," she says.
McKenzie's narrative-driven vehicle incorporates a hit parade of 23 Merman songs—"I Got Rhythm," "Rose's Turn," "Anything Goes," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "There's No Business Like Show Business"—all of the standards, plus a few of the less familiar tunes. "My longtime friend Christopher Powich wrote the script," she says. "It's partially based on a true story. Two years before Ethel died, in 1982, Chris was working at Paramount in New York. He discovered, in the trades, that they were planning to make a movie of Ethel's life. He told me that he really wanted to get me into the project to play the young Ethel, so he made some calls. He managed to get on the phone with Ethel. He said she was polite and really great, and he decided to ask her who would play her in her younger years, and she said, 'Why, me, of course.'" After Merman died, the project was dropped. "We decided that the hook for my show was that a movie was being made about Ethel's life, and she wanted to tell the story her way. When I go somewhere I want to be entertained and have a good time. Everyone who knew Ethel said that when she was around, you knew you would be taken care of—that your life was going to be okay. So that's the fun kind of experience we want to capture with this show." McKenzie says she and Powich still tinker with the show, continuing to make tweaks here and there after all these years, especially for local audiences. She adds, "Ethel made some 30 movies, so she has plenty to say about Hollywood."
McKenzie has definite ideas on what made Merman such a revered superstar. "First of all, the material she sang is so powerful," she explains. "The [Jule Styne] overture for Gypsy is still considered by many to be the greatest one ever written. I've also learned, over the years, that people who have positive energy draw people to them. In a certain way, people feel good when they listen to Ethel sing. They hear her and say, 'Wow, what is that? It sounds like an instrument.' They immediately stop and listen. In this country, especially now, we're trying to get back to basics. When you go into some of the wonderful bakeries in New York, they still bake great stuff from scratch. Ethel is like one of those recipes from scratch. She was an original, one of a kind. Ethel and what she brought to show business will always endure. She's going to continue long after I'm gone. We hope to bring some of her spirit to people, and share her legacy. That's what we're trying to accomplish. If we can do that, she is being properly honored and served."
"Ethel Merman's Broadway," presented by Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. Tue.-Fri. 8 pm, Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Also Jan. 29, 2 pm, and Jan. 30, 7 pm. Jan. 21-30. $40. (310) 372-4477. Also 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. $40-45. (818) 764-2400.