San Francisco tribute to Broadway singer Ethel Merman lacks pizazz

[Woody’s Rating: ★½☆☆☆

Denise Wharmby plays singer Ethel Merman, backed by Martin Grimwood (left) and Don Bridges, in “Call Me Miss Birds Eye.” Photo by Kevin Berne.

The original Ethel Merman.

Ethel Merman died in 1984 at age 76 — after giving more than 6,000 Broadway performances.

So the mezzo-soprano’s been lifeless quite a while.

Sadly, I found “Call Me Miss Birds Eye,” a new revue at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre in San Francisco that’s a tribute to her career, equally lifeless.

It lacks all the brassiness, bravado and sheer energy the big-voiced, big-haired Merman brought to audiences.

Denise Wharmby — as The First Lady of the musical comedy stage — and her two backup singers, Martin Greenwood and Don Bridges, hit every note correctly.

With more than a hint of their native Australian accents.

But without pizazz.

Except when Wharmby, a San Rafael transplant from Tasmania, impressively holds notes for as long as the long-winded Merman might have.

Critics heralded that Queens, N.Y.-born superstar — who supposedly never took a singing lesson — for her precise enunciation and pitch.

Wharmby imitates both well.

Yet fails to capture Merman’s spellbinding over-the-topness.

Impressive, on the other hand, is that the revue is done entirely in Bel Canto style — that is, without a mic or amplifiers, the same acoustical Italian vocal technique Merman utilized for five decades.

It works, not counting when the guys muffle their voices by facing the wings instead of the audience.

The beauty part of “Call Me Miss Birds Eye,” though, is the songlist itself, with the crème de la crème of American Songbook composers represented.

Socko tunes include Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Merman’s theme; George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” from “Girl Crazy,” the thrush’s first Broadway outing; and Julie Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy.”

And although more than a third of the 33 songs contain astonishingly clever lyrics by Cole Porter, I’d still say the most amusing piece is “New Fangled Tango,” in which the Mutt and Jeff duo use their size difference for comedic effect.

Wharmby’s frequent gown changing can also be entertaining.

Despite my sense that the men occasionally tread vocal water just to give her time to switch costumes.

The 95-minute show would definitely improve via still or video projections, extra props, and choreography not limited to hands.

Instead of merely relying on the changing colors of a huge backdrop caricature of Merman.

Having previews, moreover, might have eliminated missed cues, vocal timing that was off, and an embarrassing moment when an exiting Wharmby almost knocked Bridges over.

Adding continuity would be advisable, too, since details presented about Merman’s life are skimpy — there’s not one allusion to her penchant for telling vulgar stories and dirty jokes in public, and only a quickie reference to four marriages that “wilted as quickly as the wedding bouquets.”

The show’s title, a play on the words of a Merman hit, “Call Me Madam,” refers to the star rejecting a change Berlin wanted to make within a week of opening.

She unnerved him with, “Call me Miss Birds Eye. It’s frozen.”

Merman, who loathed anyone sharing her spotlight, would have loved the idea that when she died every Broadway house dimmed its lights upon hearing the news.

And she’d have loved that 30 years later her fame hasn’t dimmed.

The musical director of “Call Me,” Graham Clarke, doubles as artistic director of Acoustic Voice of Australia, which produced and is presenting the revue. He firmly believes this pre-Broadway outing is a choice vehicle for those who want to immerse themselves in Merman songs and nostalgia.

That’s wishful thinking, I suspect.

Opening night, many patrons were checking watches with regularity — and about a quarter of the crowd left at intermission.

Clearly an audience that reviews a show with its feet.

“Call Me Miss Birds Eye” plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through July 19. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Matinees, 2 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets: $20 to $65. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net