This “revue of a lifetime” is a good idea, well intentioned, occasionally very well executed, but unfortunately off its mark as often as it is on. Conceived and written by Stephen Cole, with its music supervised and arranged by David Krane, it purports to cover Mary Martin’s journey from small Texas town Weatherford to the Broadway canyons and the Hollywood hills, from corny light soprano small town gal to international star whose career kept her at the top for forty years.
As her greatest successes were on the stage, she is up there in the pantheon along with Ethel Merman, the Lunts, Katherine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Julie Harris, Al Jolson, Tallulah Bankhead, Ray Bolger and other luminaries who had to be seen in the flesh to be truly appreciated.
It’s an interesting journey, for in order to keep it fresh and alive, the lady often re-invented herself by changing her image, and expanding her range. At home in Texas she emerged from a happy childhood, married Ben Hagman at 17 and was pregnant at 18 with her son Larry, only to discover marriage and motherhood were not satisfying. With her lawyer father’s encouragement she divorced Hagman and lit out for Hollywood to study dance so that she could return to Texas and open her own dance studio. She taught for a while, but a bigot who thought dance was sinful burned down her studio, and she returned to Hollywood to audition as a singer. She had enough success there to attract a producer who offered her a role in a New York musical, but it never did open. However, an audition that followed led to her first big break when she landed a featured role with only one number in the second act of Cole Porter’s Leave It To Me at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. The year was 1938, Ms. Martin was 25 and the one song was “My Heart Belongs To Daddy”. With it, she zoomed to stardom in one leap.
Paramount signed her and she made 10 films in the next 4 years. But the screen was never as kind to her as was the stage, and though she was popular as leading lady to Bing Crosby and others, she never quite made it big time on the big screen. She met and married an agent named Richard Halliday out there, and he abandoned his own career to manage hers. He and she lit out for New York, for he saw the latent magic in the lady, and sensed it would project better on Broadway.
His judgment was not so sound in his first decision on her behalf — he turned down the lead in Oklahoma! for her, choosing instead a better role in something called Dancing In The Streets, which opened and closed in Boston during its tryout. Undaunted, they persisted and next accepted an offer from Cheryl Crawford for Mary to play the title role in the incoming One Touch of Venus, a part for which Marlene Dietrich was first choice. Dietrich turned it down and Martin was dubious — very concerned about playing the Goddess of Love, but she agreed on one condition — that she be allowed to work with Mainbocher, a major French designer, whose job it would be to transform her into something sleek and sexy. It worked.
After Venus, she became a bankable Broadway over-the-title star of the first order. That was 1943, and only the beginning, for national tours, international tours and London productions of the smash hits Annie Get Your Gun and Hello, Dolly! led to original New York productions of South Pacific, The Sound of Music, I Do, I Do, and Peter Pan , and there you have it — an enduring career that lasted well into her seventies. The lady died at 76 in 1990.
Stephen Cole’s concept for Inventing Mary Martin is flawed. For some reason, he’s chosen to tell her story by using three disparate musical theatre ladies – a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. While they make a most attractive trio, they don’t in the least resemble Mary Martin, though on occasion they attack numbers from the list of songs she introduced in her unusual and very attractive style. Singing “Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie”, Cameron Adams joins the one male in the cast, Jason Graee. Together they do manage to remind us of Crosby and Martin from one of their early films together. But later, Cameron tackles “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair”, and her attack is strictly her own. It becomes a hot number instead of a charming one, and it has nothing to do with the title of this revue.
Lynne Halliday does a beautiful job with a haunting Kurt Weill tune from One Touch of Venus, a song called “I’m A Stranger Here, Myself” and she does it simply with merely a gold wooden chair as a prop. Very Mary Martin. I know; I was at the opening of Venus and I saw the star do the same thing with “That’s Him”, a charming piece in which the lyricist Ogden Nash rhymed “he’s satisfactory” with “not actory”. Deft, delicate, classy — and Ms. Halliday approached her number in a similar manner. But in another bit, she joined her co-stars in a zippy rendition of “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love”, a song that Sophie Tucker sang in Leave It To Me. Ms. Martin recorded it, but it’s not a song that’s identified with her.
Emily Skinner, who proved herself as half of Alice Ripley in Side Show, has the most appealing voice of the three, and she uses it beautifully in singing ‘Lost In His Arms” from Annie Get Your Gun, so the song earns a place in this list of songs Mary Martin once sang. But the orchestration on this version is so different from the original, it doesn’t connect with Martin in any way. It’s mellow, it’s moving, but it’s not Mary. It’s just a song she once sang in a road tour. When attacking “Flaming Agnes” later in the show, Ms. Skinner with the help of a flamboyant hat, turns it into a wild and raucous attack, turning Agnes into something of a loon. In I Do, I Do Mary Martin managed great comic effect by doing a lot less with it. You begin to see that the concept is not really a concept at all.
The narration that binds some 20 numbers together in this ninety minute revue is handled by Jason Graee, a nimble singer-dancer-comic who has had a rich and varied career doing everything from a one-man show to a spot at the Metropolitan Opera as male vocalist in Twyla Tharp’s Everlast with ABT. He camps it up a bit, and chooses to play the MC as one who might be up there on a Saturday night at the Pines in Fire Island. His approach would be more suitable were he in Inventing Bette Midler than in this tribute to the lighter lady in this piece.
It’s all nimbly staged by Stephen Cole and Bob Richard and it’s built to travel, for it depends sensibly on merely three sliding panels and much use of projections of Ms. Martin in costume, in makeup, in snapshots, over the years from childhood on. The photos tell us more about her than does the production for its style is so inconsistent, if one had never heard of the star, one would leave the theatre not knowing much, except that she’d had some swell songs to sing during her career. The recent Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill with Audra McDonald as Billie Holliday is a fine example of what I find a “revue of a lifetime” should be, except that the Holliday revue deals only with the end of her journey. Love, Linda which revealed the woman behind Cole Porter, his wife – in another example of a well drawn portrait, beautifully played by Stevie Holland in every way capturing the essence of Linda Porter.
When getting the style right in numbers like “Nellie”, “I’m A Stranger Here Myself”, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”, this show is home free. For the rest of the evening, it needs to take a good long look at the subject herself, have a listen as well, then let the songs she made famous, or at least introduced, catch her glow. For she had one, and as Ethel Merman, her arch rival for First Lady of the Musical Theatre said, when asked what she thought of Mary Martin, answered: “She ‘s ok. If you like talent.” Only occasionally was she on display Thursday night.
Inventing Mary Martin is onstage through May 25, 2014 at the York Theatre, 619 Lexington Ave. (Entrance on 54th St.), NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.