ETHEL MERMAN TRIBUTE
A host of divas from the stage, screen and television were on hand this past Sunday evening to pay tribute to the one-and-only Ethel Merman. A fundraiser for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly!” was a sold-out, thrilling 90 minutes of songs that were either introduced or made famous by the legendary stage star. Those stellar divas on hand to salute The Merm were Madeline Kahn, Lainie Kazan, Patti LuPone, Andrea Martin, Bette Midler, Debra Monk and Elaine Stritch.
The evening began from one of the theatre’s boxes with two short welcomes: one from GMHC and the other from TV host Phil Donahue, one of the co-chairs of the event. A throng of dancers then appeared onstage to perform to a recording of Merman singing “Something for the Boys.” John Epperson, aka Lypsinka, joined the dancers and proceeded to lip synch a wonderfully hilarious combination of Merman words, both spoken and sung. An orchestral suite of Merman hits followed, and then a chorus of singers -including Bryan Batt, Kristen Behrendt, Paul Binotto, Brigid Brady, Roy Chias, Donna Lee Marshall, Roxie Lucas, Christopher Monteleone, Guy Stroman, Dave Theys, Clif Thorn and Jeff Williams–sang “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning.”
From the loudspeaker came the first of many introductions of the evening that were all voiced by a Merman impersonator. Elaine Stritch, last on Broadway in A Delicate Balance, took to the stage to sing a duet with the chorus, the Call Me Madam classic, “You’re Just in Love.” Although she had microphone problems, Stritch managed to triumph and performed multiple encores of the song. Stritch then announced that she thought the evening should have been called “High Time,” because, as she put it, “It’s high time that this town of ours stood up and cheered for Ethel Merman.” Stritch adored Merman and related a few anecdotes about one of Broadway’s greatest stars. My favorite story that she told involved Stritch’s time as standby for Merman in Call Me Madam. During a matinee performance of Madam, Stritch was watching from the wings as Merman belted out “Can You Use Any Money Today?” There was a drunken man in the front row who blurted out, “You got enough money. . .Throw some my way.” Merman kept going and never took her eyes off her co-star. By the time she reached the final line of the song, “You can have mine, all of mine, all of. . .” the drunken man was completely out of control. Merman stopped singing, walked down the stairs, walked down to the front row, picked up the man, walked him up the aisle, threw him out the door, walked back down the aisle, walked back up onstage and then sang the last word of the song with her full force: “Mine.” Stritch followed the stories with a touching rendition of a song Merman introduced in Panama Hattie, “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please.”
Tony winner Andrea Martin was up next, and she delivered “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” with her usual laugh-inducing facial expressions and perfect comic timing. Debra Monk joined Martin for Cole Porter’s “Friendship” from another Merman triumph, Anything Goes.
The woman who helped produce the concert, Lainie Kazan, took to the stage next and began with a spirited version of Gypsy‘s “Some People.” Kazan has an interesting vocal style that is part Broadway, part Vegas, part Borscht Belt. I find her more appealing as an actress than a singer, but she did bring a certain verve to her singing. After “Some People” Kazan spoke a bit about The Merm, who she said was a lady with guts. “Ethel Merman had guts. She married Ernest Borgnine,” joked Kazan. “The reason that they separated,” she announced, “was every morning Ethel Merman would wake up, roll over, and say, ‘Ernie, I had a dream'” Ba-dum bum! A gentle version of Annie Get Your Gun‘s “I Got Lost in His Arms” followed, and Kazan finished with another Gypsy anthem–she played Rose in stock–“Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
The surprise performers of the evening then walked onstage and received a wild applause. The thunderous ovation was for those Side Show darlings, Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, who were in full costume as the Hilton sisters. They proceeded to delight the crowd with two Gypsy songs that were perfectly suited to their attire: “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and “Wherever We Go.” The woman were in terrific voice and were definitely one of the highlights of a wonderful evening. In fact, the audience again erupted into a huge ovation after their song with the hope–although it didn’t happen–that Skinner and Ripley might return for an encore.
Madeline Kahn, who was introduced as the woman who won a Tony “for being Gorgeous,” then offered a version of Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths, on the 90th Floor” from Red, Hot and Blue! While her singing was perfectly fine, perhaps a more comic song would have been a better choice for Kahn, whose soprano always seems to be at odds with her more comedic personality.
A burst of energy in the form of Patti LuPone next conquered the stage and scored with four of Ethel Merman’s classic songs. First up was an upbeat, belted-to-the-rafters version of “Ridin’ High.” In terms of sheer vocal strength, it was perhaps only LuPone who truly evoked the memory of Merman’s trademark power. LuPone followed “Ridin’ High” with “I Still Got My Health,” and then she put down the microphone and asked, “Can you hear me?” “Of course you can,” she laughed and then delivered a luscious, unmiked version of Annie Get Your Gun‘s “Moonshine Lullaby” backed by The Manhattan Rhythm Kings. She finished with a rousing “Blow, Gabriel Blow,” from the Cole Porter classic, Anything Goes, a musical in which both LuPone and Merman triumphed. An elderly man seated to my left, seemingly old enough to have seen Merman in her heyday, whispered to his wife, “She’s fantastic.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
If the evening had ended there, one could hardly complain, but as an extra bonus, the enthusiastic crowd was treated to that diva of divas, the Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, who walked onstage belting, “Here she is boys, Here she is world, Here’s Rose!” The audience jumped to its feet to welcome Midler, who continued to thrill with her version of “Rose’s Turn.” Midler then announced that she was “glad to be in New York performing for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, rather than in Washington, D.C., performing for the Straight Men’s Health Crisis–mental health crisis, that is.” She had the audience in stitches with a barrage of one-liners, and then she changed the mood with a beautiful, mellow version of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful.” And she was.
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