Together Off-Broadway: Merman & Martin at Act II Playhouse

Two Broadway legends, Ethel Merman and Mary Martin appeared together on television in 1953 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ford Motor Corporation. Rivals for the great roles, they became friends and traveled and performed together for years. In “Together Off-Broadway:  Merman & Martin, Act II Playhouse has put together a 70 minute show that is outstanding as we learn about these great stars while being thoroughly entertained by the songs they made famous.

            The act, was originated by Meredith Beck and Sarah J. Gafgen, the actors who play Martin and Merman, and they performed it around the greater Philadelphia area at various retirement homes. It was expanded into the current show by Act II’s Artistic Director Tony Braithwaite and Music Director Dan Matarazzo.

            Beck and Gafgen sing the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins- the very songs they sang in the Broadway musicals- “My Heart Belongs to Daddy, Doin’ What Comes Naturally, I Can Do Anything Better than You, I’ve Got Rhythm.” I sat there realizing that I knew every song they sang, not from the theater, but from the LP’s. And these two performers were extraordinary!

            Gafgen didn’t just look like Merman, she had the power and the range of the singer. Ethel Merman was the original Rose in Sondheim and Styne’s show, “Gypsy. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” which she sings in it, became her signature song..

            Mary Martin, as Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” sang so many classics-“I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.” Beck nails all the Martin songs, including “Never Never Land” from “Peter Pan,” which Martin played on Broadway and twice on live tv in the ‘50’s.

            They each had a run playing Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun.” They entertain us as they sing “I Can Do Anything Better than You,” competing with each other.

            The show at Act II is more than song. We learn what Merman felt about her fourth and last husband Ernest Borgnine- the marriage lasted a few weeks. We learn how Marin had a child when she was just 17 years old- Larry Hagman. We see them waiting for the results of the 1960 Tony Awards where they were pitted against each other for “Best Actress in a Musial.” It is so much fun to watch them!

            And then we learn of all the movie roles that they didn’t get, roles which they created on Broadway. Betty Hutton played Annie Oakley. Rosiland Russell played Rose in “Gypsy,”  Julie Andrews played Maria von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” the role originated by Martin on Broadway.

            On the stage with these two virtuosos is Dan Matarazzo, the pianist. He blends  seamlessly as he accompanies Beck and Gafgen, playing so softly at times, that we can easily hear the gentlest of songs without missing a word. And the costumes designed by Janus Stefanowicz were beautiful.

            Two more comments. I wonder what the response would be to younger audiences who don’t know the songs or know Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. In a way, it makes me sad that they don’t know these great women and the great songwriters, and I hope they come out to see the show.

            As for criticism, I only wish that the program had more information about the development of the show, about Merman and Martin, as well as a list of the songs they sang. But you don’t really need it if you just sit back and listen and be carted off to Broadway.

“Together Off-Broadway: Merman & Martin.” Created by Meredith Beck, Sarah J. Gafgen, Tony Braithwaite, and Dan Matarazzo.  Thru August 7, 2022. Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, PA 19002.   215-654-0200

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