Sunday, 25 November 2012

Call Me Merman - review

Written by: Ed Theakston (@EdTheakston)

The Tabard Theatre, London


Ethel Merman is an icon. She is a musical theatre institution. She originated some of the most iconic roles of American musical theatre in the twentieth century. It therefore seems fitting that the larger-than-life Rosemary Ashe should be the woman to star in this one-woman tribute to ‘la Merm’.

Rosemary Ashe is a marvellously colourful, sprightly, witty performer. Her presence shines and glimmers as Call Me Merman vivaciously makes its way through the highs and lows of Ethel Merman’s life and career. The show is constructed in a beautiful way; while on the whole following Merman’s career chronologically, some very shrewd song choices have been made, gathering the work of some of the best songwriters of the last century into one evening. Merman’s signature brassy, camp numbers – I Got Rhythm, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, There’s No Business Like Show Business – are balanced with more tender numbers like Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor and I’ll Pay The Cheque. Using the songs as a reflection of Merman’s life makes this show more than just a revue of songs from Ethel Merman’s career; it has some very moving, illuminating moments.

Ashe’s voice is a brilliant match for Merman’s; the money notes are just as gloriously rich as Ethel’s own and Ashe’s gutsy performance captures all of her attitude and sass, and. During numbers like Cole Porter’s deliciously naughty Something For The Boys and Katie Went To Haiti Ashe has a glint in her eye that draws the audience in; you can’t help but warm to her.

Accompanying Ashe is musical director Paul Knight. They have a lovely onstage rapport and at times Knight even plays a character or two in Merman’s life. He is certainly a wonderfully accomplished pianist who makes every number flow stunningly. The medleys of numbers from Anything Goes and Annie Get Your Gun especially are excellent.

Ashe succeeds in making a legend into a real woman again. The glimpses of Merman’s personal life shows her as a troubled woman, searching for love, who buried her head in her work when real life got too difficult. At times the show feels a little static; given Ashe’s dynamic vocal and emotional performance it is a shame that she is rather rooted to the spot behind a microphone. This is balanced, though, with the indelible wit of both Merman and Ashe, which picks the show up in exactly the right way at exactly the right moments. Ashe’s personal respect and admiration for the woman shines through at all times.

Of course, this is a show for fans of Ethel Merman – or at least those who have an interest in the Broadway musical. But it is a show that Ethel would surely have been proud of.


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