Rita McKenzie is such a natural as Broadway icon Ethel Merman, most audiences never realize it’s all an act. But it’s an act McKenzie has been playing quite convincingly for more than 20 years.
“I always loved the old Broadway shows, but I didn’t particularly like Ethel Merman,” McKenzie said. “She was too loud and brassy. “
But McKenzie’s powerful alto/mezzo soprano voice conjured other images for directors and critics. When she was taking theater classes in New York, one of the teachers said, “If Ethel Merman ever dies, you got the part.”
When she played one of the young babes in “Pajama Game,” a critic wrote that she had the “spirit of a young Ethel Merman.”
In a summer stock production of “Gypsy,” she was cast as Mama Rose — Merman’s most famous role. McKenzie was only 26 at the time, much too young to play the mother of grown daughters, but she had the right voice.
Although Merman wasn’t a trained singer, her thundering voice was a distinct advantage on stage in the 30’s and 40’s before actors used microphones. She rocketed to fame with the Gershwin brothers’ “Girl Crazy,” before doing several Cole Porter shows, including “Anything Goes” and Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun.” Her final Broadway appearance was in the 1970’s in the title role of “Hello, Dolly!”
“I admired her work, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” McKenzie said.
But her friend, Christopher Powich, had an idea to put together a Merman tribute for McKenzie to do after the star died in 1984. McKenzie researched Merman at The Lincoln Center and discovered she could identify with Merman as a devoted daughter and mother.
“I decided I like this woman,” McKenzie said. “When people see the show, they will learn a little more about her.”
The first show on Jan. 16, 1988, marked what would have been Merman’s 80th birthday. It was supposed to run four performances. Since then she has done various Ethel Merman shows, including “Tribute to Ethel Merman,“ which she presented with many symphony orchestras throughout the country.
Her full two-act show, “Ethel Merman’s Broadway,” in which McKenzie becomes the character through both speaking and singing debuted off-Broadway in 1995. The show includes 23 songs, including Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” George and Ira Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Everything’s Coming up Roses” by Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which opens the second act, is McKenzie’s favorite.
“It’s a peppy song; it cheers people up,” McKenzie said. “Times are hard now, but Ethel entertained during a recession. I want to see people come in and leave feeling better.”
But if you should run into McKenzie off stage, don’t expect to see the dark haired, red-lipped Merman. McKenzie is a blonde you might recognize from multiple television appearances.
“When I’m not doing the show, people would never say I look like Ethel,” McKenzie said. “They may recognize my [normal speaking)]voice from voice-over commercials I’ve done.”
McKenzie said she is looking forward to the run, which is right around the corner from where she lives in Sherman Oaks.
“It’s nice to be able to fall out of my own bed and do the show.”
She and Powich, her writing partner and director of the show, are always tweaking it and have a few surprises for this production. But McKenzie won’t reveal the twists.
“You’ll just have to buy a ticket. But, believe me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised! In fact, I’m gonna be surprised myself!”
“Ethel Merman’s Broadway” at El Portal Theatre runs February 16-27 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, call (818) 508-4200.