As Ethel Merman tells it, when Broadway was king, she was its queen. But
it's been more than 50 years since Hollywood deposed that royal couple. So why
would a young woman with a big voice decide to make a career of resurrecting
the girl from Astoria, born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann?
If you have to ask, you haven't heard Rita McKenzie sing. She's been
impersonating Ethel Merman since the Reagan era. Estimating her age as
"somewhere between 40 and death," McKenzie looks like the mature Ethel of the
1950s, sequined but no frills. In what amounts to Ethel's Queens homecoming, a
couple of subway stops from where she was born, McKenzie draws cheers at the
mention of Astoria and surprised murmurs when she reveals Ethel was
Episcopalian - not Jewish as "everyone" thought (perhaps because the Yiddish
word chutzpah fit her so). This Saturday matinee crowd, generally old enough to
recall when it really was "Ethel Merman's Broadway," is already hooked with
"You're the Top," deftly accompanied by music director Allen Farnham's
three-piece ensemble. "I never needed a microphone," says Ethel/Rita, her
booming vibrato washing over the audience like an ocean of sonic waves.
Written for a 1992 Off-Broadway run by McKenzie and director Christopher
Powich, this is more than a revue. There's enough life story to support the
conceit that Ethel is pitching a biopic to a movie producer in the house.
Hollywood never appreciated her, which she demonstrates by singing a
wild-animal song that wound up on the forgotten film's cutting-room floor.
Everything else is sing-along material. She invites the audience to act as
her chorus on "No Business Like Show Business" during an "Annie Get Your Gun"
medley, and passes around crackers and dip while impersonating "The Hostess
With the Mostes' on the Ball" from "Call Me Madam," also by Irving Berlin.
Of all the composers who, in sum, wrote 100 songs for Ethel, her favorite
was Cole Porter, for whom she did "Anything Goes." Porter regarded
glamour-struck Tinseltown as she did: "Hollywood shoots too many movies and not
enough blondes," she zings.
By intermission, McKenzie's act, though startling in its volume and
clarity, has started to wear thin. Ethel says she followed George Gershwin's
advice during her first big break, bellowing "I Got Rhythm" in his 1930
Broadway hit "Girl Crazy": "Never go near a singing teacher." And McKenzie does
the same, for the most part, belting out songs with no sense of Broadway
character. Only when she is asked to star as Mama Rose in "Gypsy," Ethel
declares that she wants to be an actress. The shift is palpable here, as
McKenzie for the first time interprets a song. "Rose's Turn" becomes an
By then, Merman is tired. So she passes up the chance to open "Hello,
Dolly!" She looks back on her four marriages with wistful humor, and on the
indifference of her son and the suicide of her daughter with her only hints of
Ethel Merman died 20 years ago at age 76. But she sings again, sans mike,
at Queens Theatre in the Park.
About RITA McKENZIE
RITA McKENZIE's dazzling recreation of Ethel Merman's Broadway has electrified audiences worldwide. Her internationally acclaimed performance started Off-Broadway at the John Houseman Theatre in New York City, and she performed at Carnegie Hall, Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles, Harrah's Casino Hotel in Atlantic City and recently on an SRO eight city tour of Japan. The exciting original cast album of Ethel Merman's Broadway has just been released on Varese Sarabande Records. Miss McKenzie starred in the Los Angeles Premiere of the Off-Broadway musical Ruthless! and she can be heard on the Original L.A. Cast Recording of the show. She received rave reviews for her role as Phoebe Farber in the Pre-Broadway production of Hurry! Hurry! Hollywood! in Los Angeles and raves again as Maggie Jones in 42nd Street with Mariette Hartley. Her other starring roles include Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, Aldonza in Man of La Mancha, Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance, Belle Poitrine in Little Me, Domina in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Cleo in The Most Happy Fella, Widow Corney in Oliver!, Nurse Custer in Whoopee! and, of course, Mama Rose in Gypsy. Miss McKenzie is a popular Symphony Concert artist. She sang the rousing finale on the 1996 ratings smash - the Washington, DC Fourth of July Spectacular. She has been featured with the Philadelphia Orchestra Pops, as well as with the Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Diego, Austin, Ottawa, Canada, Baltimore, and Phoenix Pops and the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. Miss McKenzie honored Cole Porter when she appeared at his 100th birthday celebrations at Carnegie Hall with Donald Pippin and with Eric Kunzel and the Centennial Orchestra in Indianapolis. She made her London debut in the fall of 1995 in the Gala Celebration of the Anniversary of the End of World War II, "The Fleet's In."
Miss McKenzie is currently touring the country in the 50th anniversary production of "Annie Get Your Gun" with Glenn Yarbrough and will soon be seen in Rodney Dangerfield's new movie "Meet Wally Sparks." TV audiences will remember Miss McKenzie for her role as Mrs. Littlejohn on NBC's "Frasier" as well as Rita Marcus on "Big Brother Jake" for The Family Channel and also for her recurring role on "Daddy Dearest" starring Richard Lewis and Don Rickles for the Fox Network.
Read additional reviews "Revisiting the Past"
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Ethel Merman (1908 -1984 )
Ethel Merman, First Lady of the musical comedy stage