by Jim Gladstone
“We’re asking folks to share programs,” explained an usher distributing black-and-white photocopies to the patrons who only filled up about a quarter of the 1000-plus seats at San Francisco’s gilded Geary Theater for Friday night’s performance of Call Me Miss Birds Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman.
Produced by Acoustic Voice, a well-regarded Australian company, this San Francisco run—through July 19—has been prominently billed in its promotional materials as a “Pre-Broadway Engagement.” But with production values as skimpy as those programs, a cast of three plus pianist, a single backdrop set; show choir choreography, plus a book that’s little more than a narrated outline with the occasional groan-inducing gag, Broadway seems a long haul away.
It’s a real shame, because while Birds Eye is a far cry from the theatrical event its advertising leads one to expect, its got the makings—three terrifically skilled and genial singers and over thirty classic songs by the likes of Cole Porter and the Gershwins—of a first-rate cabaret act.
Ironically, it’s the show’s admirable impetus that has led it to be mounted in such an inappropriately scaled venue. Vocal coach Graham Clarke—who serves as the show’s onstage pianist—founded Acoustic Voice with a particular mission in mind—reviving interest and appreciation in unamplified bel canto-style singing.
Merman was an exemplar of the form during her own Broadway heyday between the 1930s and 1960s, when virtually all theatrical singers were trained to have their voices envelop the audience without mics and other electronic enhancements.
“One of the things I started thinking about decades ago, when I was attending orchestral performances,” said Clarke in a recent interview, “Was that I could still hear the triangle even though entire orchestra was playing. I was amazed by that realization.”
“Singing in the bel canto style the human voice can do that too, but sound engineers are ruling theater today. Actors are doing less and less work. When you go to the theater and hear singing coming through a speaker system, that’s two-dimensional sound. You’ve got three-dimensional beings on stage though. The sound is being disassociated from the singer and flattened out. It comes at you like a wall and pushes you to the back of your seat.”
“How many times have you been at a musical?” he asks, rhetorically, “And found yourself scanning the stage during a production number trying to identify which performer is singing a line?”
It’s hard to find the triangle.
Along with her two male sidekicks, Martin Grimwood and Don Bridges, Denise Wharmby, who plays Merman in Birds Eye, has the bel canto technique down cold. Or perhaps one should say down warm, because their carefully controlled, enormously expressive vocals managed to reach from the stage to the rear of the Geary, crisply delivering every sophisticated Cole Porter lyric, nuances intact. Audience members leaned forward in their seats, heads cocked in genuine engagement. Clarke and company deliver music with the intent of having it listened to, not merely heard.
Birds Eye makes an excellent case for both the possibility and the value of unamplified sound in large venues, but its format feels like a lecture hall demonstration. Ethel Merman was much more than a recital artist. And audiences attending musical theater expect more than a high level of musicianship—theatricality is required as well.
Call Me Miss Birds Eye
The Geary Theater
405 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through July 19