Lived up to our expectations

singing the role of Ethel  Merman

By Iride Aparicio

Photos Courtesy: Charles Zukow Associates LLC

      DENISE WHARMBY in her role as ETHEL MERMAN

SAN FRANCISCO, CA --  Australia’s ACOUSTIC VOICE, the only theater company in the world which uses no microphones to enhance the volume of the voices of their singers and no electronic equipment to manipulate their tone, made its North American Premier in San Francisco on July 8th, with  CALL ME MISS BIRDS EYE A musical Celebration based on the life of Ethel Merman.

Hearing the sounds of “Acoustic Voices” in the A.C.T's Geary Theater in S.F. was a unique experience for  those accustomed to hearing voices manipulated by electronic equipment. And the voices of DON BRIDGES as Narrator, Performer and Guitarist, MARTIN GRIMWOOD as Narrator and Performer, and the voice of DENISE WHARMBY who played the star role of ETHEL MERMAN, was a new experience. All have well-trained vocal instruments, enunciate every one of their words well, and without being loud or producing a harsh sound, could be heard clearly from any theatre's seat.

Martin Grimwood, Denise Wharmby, and Don Bridges
           Martin Grimwood, Denise Wharmby, and Don Bridges   

For those who may be wondering why a work written by JACK TINKER (a London Theatre Critic) as a celebration of  singer ETHEL MERMAN (l908-l984)  was Called CALL ME MISS BIRDS EYE, it will be interested to learn that the show’s  name is a quote of MERMAN herself, that was printed on a magazine at the time she was rehearsing a musical written by IRVING BERLIN. According to the article, when the famous composer went to talk to her to inform her that he had written "new lyrics" for one of the song she was singing, she told him: “Call me Miss Birds Eye” (The eye of a bird never changes its aimed direction) so MERMAN, who was considered  “The First Lady of Musical Theatre” during the 30’s and 40’s, behaved once more like a  “Diva.” After all, she was well-known, at the time, for refusing to make any changes in anything after she had rehearsed it.

WHARMBY can impersonate MERMAN easily. The singer from Australia, has MERMAN's physical looks, her charisma, and if not the brassiness in her tone of voice that MERMAN had, she can imitate her gestures well. Being trained as a BEL CANTO singer, WHARMBY knows how to project her voice, and how to let her tone flow freely from her throat. She vocalizes well, and like MERMAN, she can interpret every one of her songs with feeling.  Her tessitura  (pitch) is mellower than MERMAN’s, she has a beautiful tone of voice, and on opening night, she allowed the audience to hear it, in some of her thirty songs from the extensive MERMAN’s catalogue. As a singer, WHARMBY's vocal technique is impeccable.

A little let down of the show on that night was that many of the MERMAN’s  songs that WHARMBY sang were from shows completely unknown to the audience and they were unable to recognize them. WHARMBY's best interpretations on that night, were her “love” songs (those that came after the narration of BRIDGES of MERMAN’s  four divorces) that she sang with a lot of feeling. The applause, however, and the ovations came after she sang MERMAN’s most popular songs such as:  “ They Say it’s Wonderful” “Before the Parade Passes By”and “I got Rhythm” and “Everything is coming up Roses.” WHARMBY was wonderful singing those.


The history of MERMAN’s life in the show, is inserted as short skits and narrations between her songs with BRIDGES or GRIMWOOD, relating them and singing songs alone or with WHARMBY, and with short dances. Her life starts with her as a young girl working as stenographer (a secretary who knew shorthand and was able to type all her contracts later on.) a job that, later on, opened her doors to Broadway when as secretary she became acquainted with  people in show business. While “her life” is mostly told by the narrators, some of the short skits are “acted” and some others include dancing.

The show is good as is, but if it is heading for Broadway, it may need that some of the “skits” (in which BRIDGES and GRIMWOOD, talk and sing) be acted, to change the pace of the show that, at times, feels that it has too many songs.  MERMAN had a lot a “drama” in her  life so, perhaps to create a better knowledge of MERMAN in the audience, part of that drama is acted by the thee actors on the stage instead of narrated. Showing (intead of telling) the audience a skit, of  MERMAN crying, after being told by a producer  that she could not play the role of Rose, (The role considered by many MERMAN’s  best characterization of a character on Broadway) in the movie version of “GYPSY,” could be very effective.

The singing of BRIDGES, was a little “shaky” on some of his songs on that night, but his playing the guitar and his narrations were good.  GRIMWOOD’s singing was more even and he allowed the audience to hear the quality of  his deep tones in a couple of his songs.

Dr. GRAHAM CLARKE, the Artistic and Musical Director of Acoustic Voice, is a trained concert pianist at the University of Melbourne School of music. He has worked professionally as a singer and accompanist, assistant conductor, arranger and Musical Director. With all his training, it was no wonder that on that night, he played all the songs for the three singers masterfully at the grand piano, allowing each one of them to display the beauty of their vocal instruments.

“CALL ME MISS BIRDS EYE” is a must see show if you enjoy good music and wonderful musical songs sang in beautiful and well trained voices.

For ticket information contact A.C.T. Geary Theater at (415) 749-2228