AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music and Lyrics by Various
Book by Jack Tinker
Directed by Rick Wallace
Presented by Acoustic Voice
Geary Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Ethel Merman deserves far better than she's getting in "Call Me Miss Birds Eye," the Australian import playing at ACT's Geary Theater.

Presented by Acoustic Voice, the musical revue is performed with no amplification. Instead it depends on the ability of its three performers, plus the onstage pianist, to project the music and lyrics to the farthest reaches of the theater. I can't judge how well they did that, but I was able to hear well in my mid-orchestra level seat.

Written by Jack Tinker, the two-act show features more than 30 songs that Merman sang in her multi-decade career, starting in 1930. It's subtitled "A Celebration of Ethel Merman" and traces her adult life from working as a stenographer to becoming one of the nation's biggest musical stars. This aspect of the show is one of its weaknesses as it briefly touches on one phase of her life after another with little depth.

The show stars Denise Wharmby as Merman. She sings well enough and has excellent diction, but don't expect her to sound like Merman. For that matter, don't expect anyone to sound like her. She was one of a kind.

The two men who perform with her as narrators and singers are another of the show's weaknesses. Don Bridges, the shorter of the two, lacks a strong presence, while his taller colleague, Martin Grimwood, often sings off-key.

The show is at its best when Wharmby sings hits like "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," and others by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. The latter figures into the show's title. When he wanted to make some last-minute changes to "Call Me Madam," the notoriously controlling Merman said, "Call me Miss Birds Eye. The show is frozen."

Serving as accompanist and musical director is Graham Clarke, artistic director of Acoustic Voice.

Rick Wallace's direction and choreography are underwhelming. The show has a sameness along with a lack of energy, two more of its weaknesses, all of which resulted in some empty seats after intermission.

This North American premiere is supposed to be a pre-Broadway run, but it's hardly ready for Peoria let alone the Great White Way. Running just under two hours, it needs some serious retooling.

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