‘Ethel Merman’s Broadway’ opens Wednesday at Welk Theatre
By Emily Sorensen
The late, great Ethel Merman returns to the stage, thanks to Rita McKenzie and her one-woman show, “Ethel Merman’s Broadway,” opening Wednesday, March 28 and running through Sunday, April 8 at the Welk Resort Theatre, 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido.
“Ethel Merman’s Broadway” is more than just a retrospective on her life, it tells Merman’s career and life story from Merman’s own point of view, featuring 23 songs, seven costume changes and two acts in a little under two hours.
“It’s chatty, informative, but a lot of fun,” said McKenzie, who co-wrote the show with longtime friend (and show director) Christopher Powich. “It’s a powerful piece because you get to know Ethel Merman.”
Merman was an actress, both on Broadway and, less successfully, in movies, who worked from 1930 to 1970. She had five Broadway shows written for her and performed in 14, including “Anything Goes,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Gypsy,” and her final Broadway show, “Hello Dolly.”
“She was the Queen of Broadway,” said McKenzie. “She had a great career, but her personal life was difficult, and we touch on that.”
The show originated from a phone conversation Powich held with Merman in 1982. A movie of Merman’s life was being planned, and Powich called Merman with the intent on recommending that McKenzie play her younger self. But when he asked Merman who would play the younger version of herself, she responded “why me, of course,” and an idea was born. Though the movie was never made, Powich and McKenzie turned that idea, of Ethel Merman playing herself in a movie about her life, into a show that has been running for 20 years, and is preparing to head to Broadway, after performing the show all over the world, including Japan and Antarctica.
It wasn’t an immediate sell for McKenzie who, though she had often been compared to Merman, wanted to be Julie Andrews instead. She agreed to the show in part to get credits to advance her career, and fell in love with it, and Merman.
McKenzie grew up taking dancing lessons and attending charm school. Attending an all-girls Catholic high school, she often played the male roles in school musical productions. Though she briefly was part of a pop group, she focused on community theater, but gave it up to become a fourth-grade teacher.
“Theater wasn’t respectable,” said McKenzie. It was her passion though, and she returned to community theater and summer stock, working her way up to bigger roles.
A one-woman show is a serious commitment, especially a show as big as this one, and McKenzie doesn’t take it lightly. Usually performing eight shows a week, she tries to take vitamins and rest to keep her voice in top shape, as well as sleeping 10 hours a night to keep her voice fresh.
“I’ll only be doing five shows a week at the Welk, not eight, so it’ll be like a vacation for me,” said McKenzie.
In the first year, learning to play Merman was difficult. McKenzie had to learn to hold a note, how to breathe like Merman did, and had to learn the cadence of Merman’s words, in order to sound like her.
Despite the hard work, McKenzie wouldn’t trade her role for anything.
“Live theater, you can’t do better than live theater,” McKenzie said. And she says she’s not up there alone, because the audience is her co-star. “I learned to listen to the audience and their reactions, and adapt myself to them,” said McKenzie.
Most of all, McKenzie says, despite the sometimes tragic subject matter, is that the show is fun. “The show is fun, we make it fun. Who wants to dwell on misery?”
Tickets for “Ethel Merman’s Broadway” range from $44 to $63. For more information, visit www.welktheatersandiego.com.
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