DIVA TALK: Divas Are Doin' What Comes Natur'lly

DIVA TALK: Divas Are Doin' What Comes Natur'lly ETHEL MERMAN TRIBUTE
A host of divas from the stage, screen and television were on hand this past Sunday evening to pay tribute to the one-and-only Ethel Merman. A fundraiser for the Gay Men's Health Crisis, "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly!" was a sold-out, thrilling 90 minutes of songs that were either introduced or made famous by the legendary stage star. Those stellar divas on hand to salute The Merm were Madeline Kahn, Lainie Kazan, Patti LuPone, Andrea Martin, Bette Midler, Debra Monk and Elaine Stritch.

The evening began from one of the theatre's boxes with two short welcomes: one from GMHC and the other from TV host Phil Donahue, one of the co-chairs of the event. A throng of dancers then appeared onstage to perform to a recording of Merman singing "Something for the Boys." John Epperson, aka Lypsinka, joined the dancers and proceeded to lip synch a wonderfully hilarious combination of Merman words, both spoken and sung. An orchestral suite of Merman hits followed, and then a chorus of singers -including Bryan Batt, Kristen Behrendt, Paul Binotto, Brigid Brady, Roy Chias, Donna Lee Marshall, Roxie Lucas, Christopher Monteleone, Guy Stroman, Dave Theys, Clif Thorn and Jeff Williams--sang "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake" and "I Got the Sun in the Morning."

ETHEL MERMAN TRIBUTE
A host of divas from the stage, screen and television were on hand this past Sunday evening to pay tribute to the one-and-only Ethel Merman. A fundraiser for the Gay Men's Health Crisis, "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly!" was a sold-out, thrilling 90 minutes of songs that were either introduced or made famous by the legendary stage star. Those stellar divas on hand to salute The Merm were Madeline Kahn, Lainie Kazan, Patti LuPone, Andrea Martin, Bette Midler, Debra Monk and Elaine Stritch.

The evening began from one of the theatre's boxes with two short welcomes: one from GMHC and the other from TV host Phil Donahue, one of the co-chairs of the event. A throng of dancers then appeared onstage to perform to a recording of Merman singing "Something for the Boys." John Epperson, aka Lypsinka, joined the dancers and proceeded to lip synch a wonderfully hilarious combination of Merman words, both spoken and sung. An orchestral suite of Merman hits followed, and then a chorus of singers -including Bryan Batt, Kristen Behrendt, Paul Binotto, Brigid Brady, Roy Chias, Donna Lee Marshall, Roxie Lucas, Christopher Monteleone, Guy Stroman, Dave Theys, Clif Thorn and Jeff Williams--sang "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake" and "I Got the Sun in the Morning."

From the loudspeaker came the first of many introductions of the evening that were all voiced by a Merman impersonator. Elaine Stritch, last on Broadway in A Delicate Balance, took to the stage to sing a duet with the chorus, the Call Me Madam classic, "You're Just in Love." Although she had microphone problems, Stritch managed to triumph and performed multiple encores of the song. Stritch then announced that she thought the evening should have been called "High Time," because, as she put it, "It's high time that this town of ours stood up and cheered for Ethel Merman." Stritch adored Merman and related a few anecdotes about one of Broadway's greatest stars. My favorite story that she told involved Stritch's time as standby for Merman in Call Me Madam. During a matinee performance of Madam, Stritch was watching from the wings as Merman belted out "Can You Use Any Money Today?" There was a drunken man in the front row who blurted out, "You got enough money. . .Throw some my way." Merman kept going and never took her eyes off her co-star. By the time she reached the final line of the song, "You can have mine, all of mine, all of. . ." the drunken man was completely out of control. Merman stopped singing, walked down the stairs, walked down to the front row, picked up the man, walked him up the aisle, threw him out the door, walked back down the aisle, walked back up onstage and then sang the last word of the song with her full force: "Mine." Stritch followed the stories with a touching rendition of a song Merman introduced in Panama Hattie, "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please."

Tony winner Andrea Martin was up next, and she delivered "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun" with her usual laugh-inducing facial expressions and perfect comic timing. Debra Monk joined Martin for Cole Porter's "Friendship" from another Merman triumph, Anything Goes.

The woman who helped produce the concert, Lainie Kazan, took to the stage next and began with a spirited version of Gypsy's "Some People." Kazan has an interesting vocal style that is part Broadway, part Vegas, part Borscht Belt. I find her more appealing as an actress than a singer, but she did bring a certain verve to her singing. After "Some People" Kazan spoke a bit about The Merm, who she said was a lady with guts. "Ethel Merman had guts. She married Ernest Borgnine," joked Kazan. "The reason that they separated," she announced, "was every morning Ethel Merman would wake up, roll over, and say, 'Ernie, I had a dream'" Ba-dum bum! A gentle version of Annie Get Your Gun's "I Got Lost in His Arms" followed, and Kazan finished with another Gypsy anthem--she played Rose in stock--"Everything's Coming Up Roses."

The surprise performers of the evening then walked onstage and received a wild applause. The thunderous ovation was for those Side Show darlings, Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, who were in full costume as the Hilton sisters. They proceeded to delight the crowd with two Gypsy songs that were perfectly suited to their attire: "You'll Never Get Away from Me" and "Wherever We Go." The woman were in terrific voice and were definitely one of the highlights of a wonderful evening. In fact, the audience again erupted into a huge ovation after their song with the hope--although it didn't happen--that Skinner and Ripley might return for an encore. Madeline Kahn, who was introduced as the woman who won a Tony "for being Gorgeous," then offered a version of Cole Porter's "Down in the Depths, on the 90th Floor" from Red, Hot and Blue! While her singing was perfectly fine, perhaps a more comic song would have been a better choice for Kahn, whose soprano always seems to be at odds with her more comedic personality.

A burst of energy in the form of Patti LuPone next conquered the stage and scored with four of Ethel Merman's classic songs. First up was an upbeat, belted-to-the-rafters version of "Ridin' High." In terms of sheer vocal strength, it was perhaps only LuPone who truly evoked the memory of Merman's trademark power. LuPone followed "Ridin' High" with "I Still Got My Health," and then she put down the microphone and asked, "Can you hear me?" "Of course you can," she laughed and then delivered a luscious, unmiked version of Annie Get Your Gun's "Moonshine Lullaby" backed by The Manhattan Rhythm Kings. She finished with a rousing "Blow, Gabriel Blow," from the Cole Porter classic, Anything Goes, a musical in which both LuPone and Merman triumphed. An elderly man seated to my left, seemingly old enough to have seen Merman in her heyday, whispered to his wife, "She's fantastic." I couldn't have agreed more.

If the evening had ended there, one could hardly complain, but as an extra bonus, the enthusiastic crowd was treated to that diva of divas, the Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, who walked onstage belting, "Here she is boys, Here she is world, Here's Rose!" The audience jumped to its feet to welcome Midler, who continued to thrill with her version of "Rose's Turn." Midler then announced that she was "glad to be in New York performing for the Gay Men's Health Crisis, rather than in Washington, D.C., performing for the Straight Men's Health Crisis--mental health crisis, that is." She had the audience in stitches with a barrage of one-liners, and then she changed the mood with a beautiful, mellow version of Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful." And she was.

All of the gals, the dancers and singers returned for an encore of "There's No Business Like Show Business." It was a magnificent evening for a magnificent legend.

I thought you might also like to read some of the Merman stories from other musical theatre actresses that were included in the program for the evening:

€Carol Channing:
When we were rehearsing for an episode of the "Love Boat," Ethel was supposed to be 'Miss Mexico,' dressed in a big black sombrero and a black shawl, Ann Miller was 'Ms. Panama Canal' with a parrot on her shoulder and I was 'Miss Alaska.' They had me dressed in a long white diamond dress with a white fox stole, white everything. When I was at the top of the staircase to do my number, Ethel yelled out, "What the hell is this? I'm dressed like a Mexican señora, but you look like a big bottle of Maalox!" I worshipped her!

€Marcia Lewis:
On my opening night on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! Ethel asked the Company members, "Does anyone know where Clive Barnes is sitting?" I just happened to notice that he was in the third row on the aisle. And Ethel turned to me with a twinkle in her eye and a knowing look, and said, "Marcia, you're just like me--you cry with one eye and count the house with the other."

€Carole Cook:
When Ethel was ill, I took her for a walk in Central Park in a wheelchair. We stopped to rest by the lake and noticed that across the water, a brass band was playing. They didn't notice Ethel was there, but started playing "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" and some other Merman standards. Ethel started to sing along softly, and with some difficulty, with all the numbers--it was very moving. At the end, we both applauded quietly and she reached over and kissed my cheek. I said, "Do you think that was over the top?" She said, "Maybe."


BETTY BUCKLEY
There's some very exciting news this week on the Betty Buckley front. It seems that Gene Feldman of Wombat Productions will be filming the first night (Feb. 13) of Buckley's upcoming concerts at the Bottom Line. The documentary that will follow will be aired on the Arts & Entertainment Network in the not-too-distant future. Stay tuned for more details as they become available. Also, the second night of BB's Bottom Line gig will include performers from her recent Broadway show Triumph of Love. Those Triumph stars who are scheduled to join Buckley include Nancy Opel, Roger Bart, Kevin Chamberlin and Christopher Sieber. Tickets are selling rapidly, so be sure to get yourself to the Bottom Line and buy your seats now.

(Betty Buckley will sing at The Bottom Line on Feb. 13, 14 and 15 for a series of Valentine concerts entitled "Heart to Heart." She will perform at 7:30 and 10 PM on Feb. 13 and 14, and on Feb. 15 show times are 4 PM [a "songs by request" concert] and 8:30 PM. The Bottom Line is located at 15 West 4th Street, and tickets are available only at the Bottom Line box office. )


**TV ALERT- Buckley will be a guest on Fox News Cable Network's "Crier Report" this weekend. "The Crier Report" featuring the Buckley interview will air on Saturday, Feb. 7 at 8 PM and Sunday, Feb. 8 at 2 PM. Fox News Cable Network is located on Channel 72 in the New York area. Check local listings for complete details.


PATTI LuPONE
Due to a scheduling conflict, Patti LuPone's interview with Charlie Rose has been rescheduled. La LuPone, who is currently starring on Broadway in David Mamet's The Old Neighborhood, will tape her interview with the talk-show host on Feb. 18, and the program will be aired some time after that. I will post the date as soon as it is scheduled.

Also, a reminder that on Feb. 14, LuPone will sing at the Kravitz Center in West Palm Beach, Florida (tickets available by calling 561-833-8300), and from Feb. 26 through March 1, she will perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony at the Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh. Tickets for these concerts, which range from $30-$48, are now on sale by calling 412-392-4900.


DONNA McKECHNIE
Tony-winning actress/singer/dancer Donna McKechnie is scheduled to host and perform in The Roaring Twenties in New York, a celebration of New York's musical history for The Little Orchestra Society. McKechnie, who thrilled audiences as the original Cassie in A Chorus Line and was last seen on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair, is scheduled to sing the Gershwin classic "Someone to Watch Over Me," accompanied on piano by the LOS's music director, Maestro Dino Anagnost. McKechnie will perform a Charleston number as well.

The evening will also include a performance by St. John the Divine's organist, Dorothy Papadakos, as well as a tribute performance of George Gershwin's "Piano Concert in F," played by Leopold Godowsky III, Gershwin's nephew. Tickets for the event, which will be held at 7:30 PM on Thursday, Feb. 12 at Alice Tully Hall, are priced at $20 and $30 and may be ordered by calling 212-704-2100. Tickets may also be obtained by mail order: Send a check (include $4.00 for shipping and handling) to The Little Orchestra Society at 220 West 42nd Street, 18th Floor, New York, NY 10036.


JULIE WILSON

I was happy to receive word that the leading lady of cabaret, Julie Wilson, will begin an open-ended run at Michael's Pub beginning Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. Michael's Pub will serve as Wilson's home base, much the same way that the St. Regis was home to another cabaret legend, the late Mabel Mercer.

Wilson first played Michael's Pub in 1984 and she returns to the club at its new home at 57 East 54th Street (between Madison and Park Avenues). In the past decade Wilson has become the undisputed "Queen of Cabaret," and has been honored by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, the Manhattan Association of Clubs & Cabarets with their Lifetime Achievement Award, USO Woman of the Year, and Town Hall Foundation's "Friend of the Arts" Award. Wilson's new show will celebrate the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld, and she will be accompanied on piano by Mark Hummel.

Performances will be Tuesday through Saturday at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. There will be a $20 music charge Tuesday-Saturday, $25 Friday and Saturday and a $15 food or drink minimum for all performances. Call 212-758-2272 or 212-355-0243 for more information and for reservations.

IN OTHER NEWS
The former The Phantom of the Opera star, Sarah Brightman, will be featured in a television concert on PBS on Monday, March 9 at 9 PM. The concert was filmed at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Highlights of Brightman's program include "Summertime," from Porgy and Bess, "Music of the Night" from Phantom and the title song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's newest musical, Whistle Down the Wind. Webber will accompany Brightman on piano for the Whistle tune. . . Liz Callaway will take part in two concert readings of the new David Friedman/Deborah Baley Brevoort/Jean Rogers musical, King Island Christmas. The concerts, which are by invitation only, will be held on Monday, Feb. 9 and Tuesday, Feb. 10.


REMINDERS:
NOTHING LIKE A DAME
The third annual production of Nothing Like a Dame will take place on Feb. 23, 1998, at the Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street. The event supports the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of the Actors' Fund of America, a program that is committed to the health concerns of women in the entertainment industry. At this time the impressive roster of performers includes Lucie Arnaz, Lauren Bacall, Laurie Beechman, Joy Behar, Betty Buckley, Jane Connell, Blythe Danner, Lea DeLaria, Joan Hamburg, Linda Lavin, Karen Mason, Rita Moreno, Bebe Neuwirth, Phyllis Newman, Christine Pedi, Jane Powell, Chita Rivera, Kate Schindle (Miss America 1998), Liz Smith, Elaine Stritch, Mary Testa, Kathleen Turner and Lillias White. Tickets for Nothing Like a Dame begin at $40 and include seats priced at $100, $200, $500 and $1,000. The $1,000 seats also include a post-show cast party with the dames at John's Pizzeria Times Square. For more information and for tickets, call the DAME-LINE at 1-888-DAME TIX (1-888-326-3849).

DIXIE CARTER
Carter will return to the cabaret stage of the Cafe Carlyle (Madison Avenue at 76th Street) on March 10. Reservations can be made by calling 212-744-1600.
LINDA EDER
She'll bring her thrilling vocals to Town Hall on Thursday, Feb. 19 at 8 PM. Tickets are now available through TicketMaster at 212-307-7171.

EARTHA KITT
The legendary Eartha Kitt continues at Cafe Carlyle (212-744-1600) on Madison and 76th Street through March 7. Performances are Tuesday through Saturdays at 8:45 and 10:45, and there is a $50 cover with no minimum.

KAREN MASON
For those of you in the metropolitan area who have yet to see Karen Mason live, here's your chance. Mason will join Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops Orchestra on March 20 at Carnegie Hall. Tickets for the evening, which is titled "The Broadway Songbook," range from $17 to $65 and are now on sale at the Carnegie Hall Box Office (881 Seventh Avenue) or by calling CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800.

BERNADETTE PETERS
BP's concert schedule follows:
Feb. 7 in Richmond, VA at The Mosque
Feb. 8 in Emporia, VA at the Emporia Elementary School
Feb. 11 & 12 in Boca Raton, FL at the Florida Atlantic Univ. Auditorium
Feb. 14 in Providence, RI at The Veterans Memorial Auditorium
Feb. 24 in Milwaukee, WI at The Bruce Hall
March 6 & 7 in Costa Mesa, CA at The Orange County Performing Arts Center
March 12 in Akron, OH at the E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, Univ. of Akron
March 14 New Brunswick, NJ at the NJ State Theatre
March 15 Springfield, MA at Symphony Hall
March 27 & 28 in Dayton, OH at the Dayton Convention Center

ANNE RUNOLFSSON
Cyrano star and acclaimed standby in Victor/Victoria, Anne Runolfsson will sing in L.A. at the famed Cinegrill from Feb. 10-14, 1998.

ON A PERSONAL NOTE
I will be singing at Don't Tell Mama (343 West 46th Street) for my annual cabaret act on Feb. 14 (at 6 PM) and Feb. 19 (at 9 PM). The show is titled "Ordinary Miracles" and includes songs by David Friedman, Craig Carnelia, John Bucchino, the Bergmans, the Gershwins, Sondheim and more. If you come, please be sure to say hello after the show. Reservations can be made by calling 212-757-0788.

That's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

-- By Andrew Gans

You can e-mail me at andrew_gans@playbill.com