Anyone familiar with classic music theatre will know the name Ethel Merman. But how many of us really know what she was like? That could be a little difficult as she has been dead for some years, but cabaret artist Jon Jackson has the answer in Ethel Merman – Queen of Broadway, which opened in the Melbourne Cabaret Festival at Chapel off Chapel on Wednesday 21 June and runs for a short five-show season finishing on Sunday 25 June.
Jackson’s successful shtick is that while Ethel is perfectly happy in “The Song Tower” on high, she would love to come back to earth just to do one more show, as a mature dame. But how can she make that happen? She needs to find a body she can use for an hour, whose owner can sing her particular brassy Broadway belt.
Enter Jon Jackson, the classically trained counter tenor with the five-octave range. Whereas in his past shows with The Great Big Opera Company, Jackson has used both his counter-tenor and baritone voices, in Queen of Broadway he is all woman, handling Ethel’s particular warm brassy sound with aplomb. As a dramatic set-up, the idea works well, and Jackson bursts onto the stage in voluminous pink gown with matching boa and silver shoes, and a wig that will make any opera fan think immediately of the late Dame Joan Sutherland.
Jackson proceeds to entertain and charm his audience in story and song, ably supported by his long-term accompanist Greg Riddell at the grand piano, plus some clever technology from the excellent Chapel sound team, to provide the orchestra when needed. Riddell doubles at times as Ethel’s foil, and he is totally at ease as both accompanist and cameo actor.
Vocally, Jackson shows his enviable classical technique, to the extent that Ethel might have wished that her own higher notes were as strong and lyrical as Jackson’s. Occasionally, opening night nerves caused a few slight hesitations, but Jackson is the consummate professional who capably overcomes minor inconveniences to move immediately to the next funny story or blockbuster song.
In any case, cabaret is not just about song, and Jackson makes a smooth transition between medleys and songs (both expected and surprising choices), simply by being Ethel as she invites the audience into her life by telling stories.
Familiar Gershwin and Cole Porter songs abound, together with a very funny version of Amy Winehouse’s “Don’t want to go to rehab”, complete with a little choreography. And it works.
One of my favourite moments was just after Ethel had sung Durwood Douché’s naughty song “Everybody’s f***ing but me”, when Ethel sipped her drink, sitting on her stool, and told us straight-faced that she NEVER used bad language on stage!
It’s worth making the point that this is not a drag show, but it showcases a fine cabaret artist acting and singing a role that happens to be the opposite gender.
You will enjoy the show if you know a lot about Ethel Merman … and even if you don’t, you will come out feeling that you have just spent an entertaining hour with one of the great dames of the Golden Age of Broadway.