Merm and Me is an uneasy merger of a biography of Merman's long, amazing show-biz career and Tommaney's personal, touching saga of his relationship with the star, and it combines powerful emotional underpinnings with some truly dubious narrative choices. The premise is a meeting of four friends of Ethel's in 1985, a year after her death. They conduct a séance, which brings her spirit, capably portrayed by Lori Dolan, back for a visit, as the friends reminisce about her long career. It's a career which was virtually the history of Broadway itself: shows with Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Sondheim. The highlights included Red, Hot and Blue, Annie Get Your Gun, and Gypsy. While this long litany helps to set up who Merman was, much of the play often sounds more like a lecture than a drama. Rather than giving us live music or singing, the play uses audio and video recordings of Merman's film and stage performances, which are illustrative but dramatically inert. The show pretty much stops dead when all the actors on stage are just watching a television screen.
Fortunately the acting ensemble brings spirit and good natured ease to the proceedings. Lori Dolan captures Merman's distinctive brassy voice and poised, almost prim physicality. Though voluptuous and no prude, Merman was never a self- exploiting sexpot -- her appeal was vigorously upbeat and G-rated, qualities that Dolan's performance captures nicely. Ivan Saltz brings some sparkle as a funny, flamboyant friend, while Marjorie Manushaw and Margie Ricke are also appealing as Merm's long-time gal pals. Handsome Ross Pivec embodies Tommaney's hesitant alter ego, Mr. Jim, who, despite his calm demeanor, seems to have had a prickly relationship with Ethel. Pivec, an amiable but inexperienced performer, doesn't bring much texture to this central role, but he doesn't have much to work with until Mr. Jim and Ethel are alone briefly in the second act. At that point their past relationship is explained. While on vacation in the Caribbean, Mr. Jim encountered Ethel and fell in love with her. But Mr. Jim had a male lover and a lot of confusion, while Ethel feared her stardom had stunted her love life ("Are they in love with öMerm' or me?"). Only now, after Ethel has died, is Mr. Jim able to express his love to her.
It's at this point that both the performances and the play start to heat up. Filled with longing, confusion, and regret, this brief scene is the emotional and thematic heart of Merm and Me, and it's very moving. But Tommaney doesn't delve fully into this central relationship, which is nearly buried between long, listless chats about Merman's career, staged with little flair or energy. The real dramatic issue -- Mr. Jim's failure to express his feelings when he had the chance and the ongoing, unarticulated relationship he had with Merman -- remains talked about in the past tense when it could have been vividly portrayed in a series of flashbacks. A major problem here is Tommaney's ill-conceived decision to keep the play within Aristotelian dramatic rules (continuous time and place), a choice that severely handicaps the narrative drive, turning it into a rather untheatrical talkathon about emotions and events from long ago. Another miscue is a truly bizarre sequence in which Ethel decides to perform Shakespeare for her friends. Merman has always been borderline camp ("Ethel Does Disco" was a gay cult classic in the Seventies), but the depiction of Ethel Merman playing Lady Macbeth tips the entire show dangerously toward travesty.
Despite its serious flaws, Merm and Me has thematic resonance and significant potential. The basic story is strong, but Tommaney needs to do some rethinking about how to tell it. While he's in a reflecting mood, perhaps Tommaney will also rethink his production strategy. Trying to wear all hats -- as producer, director, and writer -- only leads to wearing none too well.