Call Me Miss Birds Eye
Touted in upfront advertising as “a pre-Broadway run” for “the only acoustic theatre company in the world” (Acoustic Voices), Call Me Miss Birds Eye has opened its North American premiere, playing in the otherwise dark-for--summer American Conservatory Theatre. Based on audience response (including those many who chose not to stay for Act Two), Geary Street in San Francisco may be as close as this celebration of the great Ethel Merman ever gets to Broadway or New York. There are so many things wrong about this production being performed on a large, celebrated stage like A.C.T.’s that it is easy to overlook the occasional moments where its star, Denise Wharmby, actually does some real justice to the Grand Dame of America Musical Theatre.
The opening minutes of the show highlight the most damning aspects of the evening. Two men -- a short, older man and another much tall, younger-by-several-decades -- appear on stage unimpressively wearing what appear as off-the-rack, banker’s suits with plain, ugly ties. Breaking immediately into two of Merman’s iconic numbers (“Just a Lady with a Song” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”), the two who are to serve as narrators of Ms. Merman’s story and will in the end perform probably 25+% of the evening’s songs, are immediately unimpressive in almost every imaginable way. Their voices are twangy; diction, often non-discernable; arm-movements, jokingly awkward; and their non-miked singing, much too muted for the opening numbers of an evening about Ethel Merman. As the show slogs on, things for these two – as solos, duets together, or backup for the evening’s star – rarely get much better. The younger Martin Grimwood time and again has difficulty holding a note longer than a couple of beats without wavering the key into something sharper or flatter. Don Bridges sings mostly through his nose with little expression of voice, as in “I Still Got My Health.” Worse, they, who are to tell highlights of Ms. Merman’s life, can neither act nor say their lines without often stumbling. As the first act continues, audience members are visibly shaking heads, whispering, and squirming each time one or both are on the stage, which as is turns out, is a lot!
Certainly as Ethel Merman herself, Denise Wharmby fares much better. Her opening, “Some People,” has Merman-like vibrato and gutsy glamour and is a relief after Messieurs Grimwood’s and Bridges’ disappointing debut. Several times in the two hours, she does a stellar job interpreting and presenting the Merman classics in ways that both recall the voice of the great Merman as well as add some of her own flair. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is one such Merman standard that Ms. Wharmby hits out the park in presentation. Her best moments, however, are when she feels less compelled to belt and instead just lets the emotion and beauty of the music float from her to us in soft, tender tones. Jerry Herman’s “Love, Look in My Window” is one such number that leads to “ooo’s” and “ahhh’s” and appreciative applause. On too many other numbers, however, Ms. Wharmby just goes through “Merman motions,” losing the chance to use her own bel canto voice to help us both remember Merman and to discover something new in the songs most of us know so well.
The guys themselves do have a couple of moments where they rise admirably above their otherwise mediocre evening. With Ms. Wharmby, the tall Mr. Grimwood brings out the fun and comic antics we all expect when we hear Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do.” Their voices work well together as they banter challenges back and forth of “No, you can’t’ … “Yes, I can.” Mr. Bridges also finds a song where his tendency to twang nasally works well as he humorously whines, “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please.” He gains laughs exploiting his drunken, short self as he leans with pleading eyes against a shocked, giant waiter (Mr. Grimwood).
What at first seems to be the finale, a reprise of “Just a Lady with a Song” this time fortunately includes Ms. Wharmby blazing forth in true Merman style. The number is a rousing success for our triplet of performers, giving an opportunity for us to leave with a positive, last impression to balance our earlier, oh-hum memories. However, Director Rick Wallace (and also Choreographer of the largely high-school-like movements we have been subjected to all evening) cannot leave well enough alone. We must have three more attempts to end the evening – none near as good as “Just a Lady.”
Overall, Call Me Miss Birds Eye is far from ready for primetime or big-stage. Jack Tinker’s book actually tells very little about Ms. Merman that we could not learn on Wikipedia, and what is related often comes across as pedantic items on a timeline. There is way too much stage time allotted to the two men, neither of whom is a musical showman at all. And, while Diane Wharmby could probably shine forth in fine style doing Merman in a cabaret setting, she cannot quite fill up a theatre like the A.C.T.’s Geary with the volume, charisma, and grit that I believe Ethel herself could have done well into her late life.
Rating: 1 E
Acoustic Theatre’s Call Me Miss Birds Eye continues through July 19, 2015, at the Geary Stage of the American Conservatory Theatre.