In the programme of Call Me Madam, a show based on the career of a well-known Washington hostess, there was a note saying that the heroine of the piece and Ethel Merman bore no resemblance to any character, living or dead. The director David Kernan and writer John Kane have allowed the obvious untruth of the first part of the claim to blind them to the even more obvious truth of the second.
The word "inimitable" is currently overused - and misused - by lazy writers. What they mean is "distinctive", a quality that means its possessors are imitated left, right, and all over the place. But Ethel Merman, the greatest musical-comedy performer of the last century, was and is truly inimitable.
Kane has created a decent format, rare in the near-exhausted genre of biographical show: In 1961 Merman is rehearsing her forthcoming Las Vegas act with a male and a female singer, the latter representing the young Ethel (Merman would have loved that: she appeared in a revival of Annie Get Your Gun opposite an actor young enough to be her grandson). This device lets Angela Richards, playing Merman, banter with the other two and the pianist, and allows them, while she is offstage, to mention her unhappy marriages and her rows with composers and co-stars. But the main purpose of the book, like that of several arrangements, is to compensate for the inadequacies of Richards's voice. She often sits in darkness, taking a rest, while several of her songs are performed by Susannah Fellows and Mark White. The former is a lovely actress and singer but is here rather lacklustre, and her thin frame, chiselled cheekbones, and mature looks make her an unlikely Merman imitator, Vegas entertainer, or young anybody. Apart from an enjoyably loopy but accurate Bob Hope imitation, Mark White contributes mediocre vocals and some dusty steps. (Why, by the way, are we told that Red, Hot and Blue was Hope's first Broadway show? He had done several, including Jerome Kern's Roberta.) Much of the exposition is related in doggerel that is especially embarrassing in a show with lyrics by Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Irving Berlin. Here's how the genesis of Call Me Madam is described: "The lady was Perle Mesta/ We think you'll guess the resta."
Richards, who seems wearied by the effort even of just talking like Merman - with every other sentence delivered like a caustic, throw-away punch line - lacks the effortless power that Merman brought to her singing. Pushing too hard, she covers the strain with toughness, a quality that Merman never allowed to hide the beauty of her instrument. "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please," one of Cole Porter's sensuous, surging rumbas, is revamped to sound neither sexy nor Latin so that Richards can talk her way through it, thereby losing the painful contrast of the luscious music and the tight, restrained lyric. The atmosphere of hopelessness deepens into gloom when the three do several numbers from Anything Goes - their pedestrian versions of "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "You're the Top" are competing not just with memories and records but with the current, diamond-bright revival. Some of the best Merman anecdotes--such as the time she left the stage during a number, frog-marched a noisy drunk out the door, singing all the while, and returned to finish her song, bang on time--are omitted because they would clearly be impossible for the Merman we're shown.
Call Me Merman has some pleasures for devotees of Ethel and guardians of her flame. We get to hear the droll "Newfangled Tango" and a song Merman sang to troops when she was nine, about an Irish girl who had a holiday in Hawaii: "Every colleen on the street/ Is all dressed up like Shredded Wheat/ Since Maggie Dooley/ Learned the hooley." But call anyone else Merman? It would make as much sense to call them Ishmael.