Theatre Review: ‘Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular’ at Out Front Theatre

The cast of The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular (Photos by Tyler Ogburn Photography)

Out Front Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of “The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!” It runs at Atlanta’s only LGBTQIA+ theatre through Dec. 22, directed by Paul Conroy.

You may not know who Ethel Merman is. Allow me to explain: In 1930 a young woman stood in front of the footlights of Broadway’s Alvin Theatre and belted out Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” in a voice like a fire engine and blew the audience right out of their seats. The show was “Girl Crazy.” From that moment on, she was the undisputed “biggest voice on Broadway” for the next several decades.

Such hits as “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” and Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s “Gypsy” established Ethel Merman as a true Broadway legend. It is said that there was no substitute for hearing Merman live; she electrified a theatre. By the way, if you’d like to get close to what made her so exciting, listen to  “Ethel Merman—Everything’s Coming Up Roses” on YouTube.

In 1979 Merman made a disco album. It was the height of that era, and “The Merm,” late in her career and life, decided she wanted to be a part of the disco phenomenon. Out Front’s Artistic Director Conroy has re-imagined this recording as as a disco Christmas album; he has written the book of a show in which the indomitable Ethel decides she will do a live televised show from—where else—Studio 54.

Most of us old enough to have actually visited this legendary palace of glitter and decadence (that would include yours truly) would find the idea of staging a televised show there quite preposterous. Much of the appeal of Studio 54 was its exclusivity: People lined up at the famous velvet ropes ready to sell their grandmothers to get in. Of course, the current show is a parody.

But Mr. Conroy has decided to swing for the fences, and darned if the whole thing doesn’t work—in the main. And he goes a step further by having some of Studio’s (that’s what insiders called it) most famous habitués show up: Truman Capote (Brandon Deen), Michael Jackson (Patrick Coleman), Andy Warhol (hilarious portrayal by Davin Allen Grindstaff), and Donna Summer (Alaina Holeman). Mr. Coleman and Ms. Holeman, by the way, do some very nice performing as Michael and Donna.

Of course the only star of a Merman show is Merman (I think she actually said that once), and Lynn Grace does a lovely portrayal in showing us the diva’s human, compassionate side, while also revealing her famous brassiness. And she does the impossible quite well by using her big voice to give us a touch of Merman’s singing style in a couple of Christmas carols, disco version.

The villain of the piece, if you will, would be the TV producer Isaac Aherns (well-played by Rial Ellsworth). He is homophobic, obnoxious, and totally mean-spirited. He sneers at Jimmy (Russell Scott), the very kind, gay stage manager, who has a crush on Raymond (Michael Dotson), one of the three attractive male dancers (including Cansler McGhee and Max Mattox).

Aherns tries to bully Ethel herself, but as Joan Crawford might say, “This isn’t my first time at the rodeo, fellas.” Ethel takes Jimmy and his boyfriend under her wing and makes sure they have someplace nice to spend Christmas—her place.

Caty Bergmark, Zafyre Sexton, and Emily Whitley play lovely dancers. The music director/arranger is Nick Silvestri; choreography is by Jordan Kenyon Smith. Austin Kunis’ set offers only the faintest hint of Studio 54’s ambience. All he needed was, say, a million dollars.

What we have here is a fun little holiday frolic—and an affectionate paean to Ethel Merman.

For tickets and information, visit outfronttheatre.com.

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