Ethel Agnes Zimmermann was born in New York in 1908 and started singing in public at the Long Island Republican Club at age 5. The talented child would go on to become a great star of famous musicals from the likes of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Queen of Broadway – The Ethel Merman Story gives us a light sketch of some of the highs and lows of the great diva’s career and personal life.
The premise that Merman – dead for 33 years – is back to sing for an earthly audience again holds promise. Granted one hour to return from the great beyond, Merman wants to be seen and get some things off her chest. But, her spirit needs a host. Fortunately (she told us) Australian operatic counter-tenor Jon Jackson has been singing her songs since childhood. Even better, by getting his body, Ms Merman also gets his pianist, Greg Riddell.
There seemed to be some attempts at humour in Bern Gooden’s writing, as would suit Merman’s reputation for salty expressions. Much of this didn’t raise much above a chortle in the audience. Hearing Merman sing songs from Amy Winehouse or Kurt Cobain had a short-lived novelty. Given the extraordinary nature of the concept, there seems to be potential to develop this, and possibly even dialogue between Ms Merman’s spirit and her corporeal host.
Despite notes on top of the grand piano, Jackson lost his place quite a bit more than you would expect for a non-preview show, giving the work a stilted feel. Another factor conspiring against Merman’s return was a recorded backing track that was often too loud, drowning out the piano, even drawing attention to instances of vocal weakness as Jackson sometimes struggled to compete.
When we’re firmly in the realm of singing Merman’s songs, especially with only live piano accompaniment, we found the show’s highlights. Jackson gave appropriately brassy and belting renditions of songs that Merman made into hits such as There’s No Business Like Show Business and Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.
For the uninitiated, Queen of Broadway is a bit too light on for details at the moment. Fans though will surely find that Jackson’s best moments could make you believe you’re witnessing Ethel’s second coming.
Queen of Broadway – The Ethel Merman Story
The Loft – Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Thursday 22 June 2017 – 7.00pm
Season continues to 25 June 2017
Information and Bookings: www.melbournecabaret.com
Image: Jon Jackson as Ethel Merman
Review: Jason Whyte