“Some People” who attended the concert last night at The Music Center at Strathmore were transfixed in their chairs but they all agreed that “Gee, But it’s Good to be Here.” Others shouted during the performance, “McKenzie – “You’re the Top!” Yet, the audience was unanimous outside in the foyer after the show was over….”They Said It’s Wonderful” because Rita was only “Doin’ What Comes Naturally.” Okay, so I just magically included five of Mckenzie’s songs in this paragraph and if you are an Ethel Merman fan, pity yourself if you were not in attendance the night Rita McKenzie rocked Strathmore.
Audiences were so fortunate here in the DC area to have Ms. McKenzie return to one of our stages once again to relive the role of the ‘Queen of Broadway’ – as Ethel Merman was coined during her tenure on the stages of the Big Apple. I remember Rita’s last performance in Washington which I saw many years ago at the Portrait Gallery when they were running a special exhibit on Broadway. Who else should have been there to entertain the audience – but McKenzie doing Ethel?
That Merman voice was in full-force again, but this tine McKenzie was backed by a ten-piece orchestra. Musical Director David Snyder (who also ticked the ivories), and the band did a superb job of rocking the venue.This time Ms. McKenzie had seven different costume changes, and this was accomplished stage right in a costume changing room out of sight of the audience. Yet, while she was changing, Rita continued her dialogue with the audience – explaining in continuous detail the life -both onstage and behind the scenes – of our ‘Broadway Baby.’ Accolades to Costume Designer Eric Winterling who dressed her in the stunningly beautiful regalla that Ethel was so noted for. The glittery and gorgeous costumes were a WOW!
For the 105 minutes she was on stage, Rita McKenzie WAS Ethel Merman. Yes, she broke stride a couple of times to kibitz with the audience, but for the most part we were hearing about the life and times of Ethel Merman…her challenges, successes, a tragedy and her not-so-successful marriages, especially her short-lived marriage to actor Ernest Borgnine.
The stage was set up with McKenzie in the center and the band’s instruments were all around her. There was a large screen located behind her that throughout the show peppered Rita’s dialogue with slides and visuals of her shows and roles, while she was sharing her life-story with the audience. To her left was the piano and to her right was a huge cushioned lounge chair. At times throughout the evening’s performance Rita relaxed in that chair but always continued her dialogue tracing Merman’s early life growing up in Astoria, Queens, New York, and her first job as a ‘120-words per minute’ stenographer.
Merman’s first big hit was Gershwin’s Girl Crazy and Rita sang her heart out with its famous song— I Got Rhythm – holding that note for 16 bars. Not only does she have great ‘pipes,’ her projection and clear diction were perfection, just like Merman. Within the first five minutes of the night’s performance – center stage – the audience heard, “You could hear Ethel’s voice in the last row of the balcony…and that’s before she even started singing”. The audience roared its approval. Yet, just like Merman, McKenzie achieved the same air of confidence by strutting around on stage, holding her dress in certain ways to show off it pleats, belting it out with no regrets, and a Merman-like ‘salute’ to the audience after finishing each song.
After a 15-minute intermission, Dave Snyder and McKenzie opened the second act by teaming up for a duet of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Next came rousing renditions of “The Hostess with the Mostess” (From Call Me Madam), “Some People” (from Gypsy), which gave Ms. McKenzie her longest and a well-deserved ovation, and the emotional “World Take Me Back,” a song written especially for Merman when she finally performed the role of Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly.
After taking her final bows – her encore -“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” (again from Gypsy) was an amazing finish to a brassy and fabulously entertaining performance from ‘a hostess who was the mostest!’ It was a ball!
Running Time: One hour and forty-five minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.
Ethel Merman’s Broadway Starring Rita McKenzie was performed on January 21, 2012, at The Music Center at Strathmore, in Rockville, MD.
Read Joel Markowitz’s interview with Rita McKenzie.
Watch highlights of Ethel Merman’s Broadway.