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You have to know, when you’re taking on a legend of the American theater, you’d better get it right. In Act II Playhouse’s new revue, Together Off-Broadway: Merman & Martin, that goes double. It’s an admirable goal for this small Ambler theater, but unfortunately, it’s also a goal that’s left unmet.
Not only must one find an actor to meet the standards of the poised, perfect Mary Martin (Nellie Forbush and Peter Pan herself), but also another to play the foulmouthed foghorn. And what kind of cockeyed optimists would dare to suffer the comparisons anyway? That would be Meredith Beck as Martin, and Sarah J. Gafgen as Merman. Created by Beck, Gafgen, director Tony Braithwaite (also Act II’s artistic director), and pianist Dan Matarazzo, the show takes these first ladies of Broadway’s golden age on a circuitous walk through their careers, from Martin’s first marriage in Texas at 17 and Merman’s secretarial school, all the way to the final curtain.
Beck and Gafgen approximate the women’s looks, with petite Beck wearing a halo of princess braids in the style of South Pacific, and zaftig Gafgen’s hair pinned back and pompadoured like Merman’s best-known publicity photos. Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes also communicate the era, with neat shift dresses and Dolly Levi’s classic red staircase gown and feathered headpiece.
And that’s about where the similarities end. Beck and Gafgen work hard, and occasionally, they get where they’re going. A duet reproducing Martin and Merman's performance of “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)” on the classic Ford Motors 50th anniversary television special whizzes past like a purring engine, their tones in lovely contrapuntal sync. But to carry a greatest-hits medley, whether individually or together, and to sing out like Martin and The Merm, you gotta have “it,” and this production ain’t got it.
Watch any YouTube video of either performer at her peak (and the ages they’re portrayed as here suggest those peaks), or even from 60 or so years ago, and their supreme vocal control, their confidence, their sheer incandescence leaps out of the screen until you can’t look away. Act II’s revue plays like local dinner theater without the dinner.
Maybe it’s the cheesy red curtain that serves as humble set design for these absolute queens. Maybe it’s the cursory attempt at relaying their personal histories (at one point, Gafgen’s Merman says, “I lost my daughter, ‘Little Ethel,’” and that’s all we ever hear of her; her brother, we learned earlier, was born).
But mostly, it’s the missed opportunity. Why them, why now, after all this time? There are so many cases to be made for revisiting these powerhouse careers; particularly post-Me Too and post-Roe, their stories have such relevance. The show’s creators have their hearts in the right place, but unless they’re willing to dig deeper, they’d be better off reframing the whole thing as contemporary actors swooning and telling stories about the greats as a cabaret-style tribute. Or as drag. Or really, anything but the low-key half-Wikipedia entry, 70-minute-long breeze that wafts unremarkably through Act II. And unremarkable is the last word one would associate with these two.
What, When, Where
Together Off-Broadway: Merman & Martin. By Meredith Beck, Sarah J. Gafgen, Tony Braithwaite, and Dan Matarazzo; directed by Braithwaite. $37-$49. Through August 7, 2022 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, Ambler, PA. (215) 654-0200 or act2.org.
Act II does not require masks or proof of Covid-19 vaccination.
Act II Playhouse is a wheelchair-accessible venue with an elevator available to take patrons to the theater and accessible restrooms.
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