Call Me Merman
Cabaret tribute to Ethel Merman with songs by Arthur Schwartz & Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, and George & Ira Gershwin
Rosie Ashe (singer) & Paul Knight (musical director & piano)
Reviewed by: Tom Vallance
Reviewed: 13 November, 2012
Venue: The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, Piccadilly Circus, London
Former opera-singer Rosie Ashe has a fine voice and a great sense of humour. For her tribute to Ethel Merman she wisely does not impersonate, but neatly intersperses touches of her character to telling effect, such as when singing the climactic phrase “Who could ask for anything more?” to finish ‘I got rhythm’ when it is as if the legendary lady’s spirit has taken over. Though she has a different timbre, Ashe’s vocals follow the Merman pattern of being strictly on the note and perfectly enunciated. It is no wonder the leading composers of the day loved to write for Merman: “The Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman have all written songs specially for me – how can I pick a favourite?”
And what songs they are, from ‘I get a kick out of you’ and ‘You’re the top’ to the incredible scores for Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy. Ashe includes a few that are less well known, such as ‘Boy, what love has done to me’, ‘I’ll pay the check’ and ‘Katie went to Haiti’, along with Merman showstoppers. ‘Blow Gabriel, blow’ and ‘You’re just in love’, the brilliant countermelody number written as a last-minute addition to Call Me Madam, after which Merman accepted no more changes to the script or score, “Call me Miss Bird’s Eye, I’m frozen!”.
Ashe brings the requisite verve and Broadway pizzazz to these songs, but pays homage to her own background to grand effect at the close of ‘Anything you can do (I can do better)’, proving that she can sing higher than her partner by sending her final note soaring to the rafters with operatic flair. Paul Knight, her admirable musical director and accompanist, features in the duets, matching Ashe’s sense of fun, particularly with a droll piece of mime satirising Fernando Lamas, Merman’s leading man in Happy Hunting, who tried to steal attention by wearing an immodestly tight costume.
Between numbers, Ashe takes us through Merman’s stormy life with piquant comments and some of her pithy quotations, a former stenographer who would take down in shorthand script and song changes made during rehearsal. One of her early shows, George White’s Scandals (1931), starred Rudy Vallee and featured a little-known vocalist, Alice Faye. When asked later if she had recognised a future star, Merman replied, “I didn’t see anything special in Alice Faye at all, but Rudy Vallee sure did.” Merman’s education was skimpy, and she admitted that the only things she read were the gossip columns. “If someone gives me a book, they’d better make sure it has pictures in it.”
Cole Porter, who wrote three of Merman’s stage hits, likened her voice to “a band passing by”, and it is easy to forget that among the many great numbers she introduced were several touching ballads. Not only did she have a voice that reached to the back of the Gallery but she could be extremely moving when singing about newly discovered or unrequited love. Merman herself had a rocky romantic life, and Ashe has had the splendid idea of using the Arthur Schwartz-Dorothy Fields number ‘This is it’ as a motif to punctuate her many affairs (often to married men) that were to start with joyous optimism and end in disillusion.
There will probably never be another Ethel Merman who, when she came out of semi-retirement to take over the leading role in Hello, Dolly, sang Jerry Herman’s appropriately determined number, ‘World, take me back’. She knew that Broadway was changing, but Rosie Ashe’s show gives us the chance to delight again in the flavour of that tuneful past and the splendid songs introduced by a marvel.
- Call me Merman is at The Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, Piccadilly Circus, London W1 until Saturday 17 November 2012
- Bookings 020 7734 4888