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Heather Carvel as the title performer in Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience (photo courtesy of Warehouse Theatre Company)

Heather Carvel as the title performer in Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience (photo courtesy of Warehouse Theatre Company)

By Richard Ades

It’s been about a decade since the Warehouse Theatre Company made a brief but impressive appearance on the Columbus theater scene. Now it’s returned with Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience, written and directed by artistic director Kristofer Green.

Part biography and part musical revue, the original work is a bold choice for a comeback. But it’s also a risky choice, as it relies on viewers’ fond memories of the belter who was known as the “first lady” of musical comedy. Since Merman reached her peak long before her death in 1984, only older viewers will have such memories.

Those who do will realize that leading lady Heather Carvel is doing a pretty good imitation of Merman’s brassy vocal style. My maim complaint is that Carvel’s portrayal often comes off as a caricature rather than an impersonation. She’s at her best on the more dramatic songs, such as the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim number Rose’s Turn from Gypsy.

If Carvel’s voice is the show’s greatest strength, its biggest weakness may be the choice of material.

Following a format similar to that of the current Broadway hit Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Big Voice finds Merman playing a nightclub and recalling highlights of her career between renditions of her favorite tunes. The trouble is, you can take the word “highlights” literally. Though Merman’s life had its share of disappointments, they seldom make it into the show.

Warehouse says Big Voice is “based on the words of Ethel Merman,” which may explain why it’s so stubbornly upbeat. Since Green apparently was unwilling to put words into Merman’s mouth, the play is seldom more revealing or dramatic than typical nightclub patter.

Adding a little variety, each of the two acts comes with its own “guest star”: Donald O’Connor (Cody Michael Shope) in Act 1 and Mary Martin (Elisabeth Tate) in Act 2. O’Connor’s bit is enjoyable, as Shope sings and dances well. On the other hand, the Carvel/Tate duets could do more to exploit the personality differences between the bombastic Merman and the sweetly refined Martin. (For a real-life Merman/Martin duet, check out this link.)

Though Big Voice isn’t as dramatically interesting as it might have been, a show that includes tunes such as I’ve Got Rhythm, Everything’s Coming Up Roses and There’s No Business Like Show Business can’t help supplying a good deal of musical fun. Still, the best thing about the play is that it marks the return of Warehouse Theatre.

If you’re old enough to remember Warehouse productions such as 2003’s Assassins or A Piece of My Heart, its reappearance will give you cause for hope.

Warehouse Theatre Company will present Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience through June 28 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25; student rush tickets are available for $15. 614-371-5940 or warehousetheatre.org.

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