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First Nighter: Mary Martin Let Down in Inventing Mary Martin

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Somehow it should seem appropriate that Inventing Mary Martin is as corny as Kansas in August. But the kind of corniness prevalent in conceiver-writer Stephen Cole's revue, at the York, tributing one of Broadway's great musical comedy leading ladies, is never welcome.

The "corny as Kansas in August" quote is instantly recognizable to longtime Martin fans as an Oscar Hammerstein II lyric she warbled again and again in South Pacific, when for the second time in her career an appearance (this one opposite Ezio Pinza) earned her publicity and adoration of the sort few performers ever hope to receive.

These are the people whom Cole is courting--however many of them are left who remember Martin from her stage performances or even from the now hardly ever shown Peter Pan she made, well, unforgettable on television, too. On the other hand, Cole would also like to entice potential fans who may only know the Martin name but should be better acquainted with her celebrated achievements.

Having now sat through the 90-minute, uh, entertainment, I'm not certain how much sense it makes to recommend the proceedings to either the former constituency or the latter. Anyone who cherishes Martin's performances isn't likely to find many of the reprises here sufficiently delectable, and anyone who isn't clued in to Martin's charm when she was at her best may simply end up puzzled over the predominantly anemic attempts to replicate it.

Jason Graae, who hosts and narrates the biographical stuff, Emily Skinner, Cameron Adams and Lynne Halliday are the quartet recapping Martin's life from her birth in Weatherford, Texas to the toast-of-the-town response after her "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in 1938's Leave It to Me to the spate of Bing Crosby and others '30s-'40s Paramount movies to South Pacific and Peter Pan and The Sound of Music and eventually to retirement on a Brazil ranch with manager-husband Richard Halliday.

The cast members' requirements are singing songs Martin either introduced or took on in touring companies of Annie Get Your Gun and Hello, Dolly!. And if they're not singing the fabulous standards in their entirety, they're asked to divvy up the lines within a single song or deliver parts of them in medleys.

In other words, Graae, Skinner, Adams and Halliday are asked to participate in a lot of songus interruptus, which does no one much good--not Martin and not the songwriters who wrote for her (Hammerstein, Rodgers, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, Johnny Mercer, Richard Whiting, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Carolyn Leigh, Moose Charlap, Jule Styne, Leo Robin, Ralph Rainger, Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt, Vernon Duke, Howard Dietz, Arthur Schwartz, Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, among others). And Cole's approach certainly doesn't do audiences any good.

For one instance, imagine including only a part of the marvelously smoky "Speak Low," that Martin warbled in her silvery voice during the 1943 One Touch of Venus. Patrons who relish the song and only get a smidgen of it have to be frustrated (I was), while it can't help ticket buyers who don't know the piece of sultry material to hear incompletely what they've been missing by not having the song stored in their memory banks before this.

There's a reason--if not an acceptable one--for some of the stinginess. Significant Martin-related songs are so many that it's daunting to pack them into one revue. Understandably, there's the temptation to truncate some of them, but it's a temptation that should be adamantly resisted. Why don't more revue creators understand that fewer songs sung fully is a better policy?

A second reason for the mingy medleys is so that directors and choreographers--such as Cole and Bob Richard on this occasion--can show their ingenuity through appealing numbers. There are plenty of those here that have Adams, Graae, Halliday and Skinner moving around the stage and smiling to bet the band in time-honored '50s revue style. What they could have benefitted from individually is more opportunity to make a song theirs.

To his credit, Graae has a good time with Coward's "Alice is At It Again" from Pacific 1860, a 1946 London flop. In his lead-in to the racy ditty, Graae explains that Martin thought it far too racy and refused to sing it. Graae doesn't go on to say this caused a rift between the two stars that lasted until around 1955 when they reunited for the CBS special Together With Music.

To her credit Skinner, who's looking extremely chic these days, does an amusingly raucous version of "Flaming Agnes," which Martin sang in I Do! I Do! It would be nice to say that Adams acquits herself as well with "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," but she doesn't. I'm all for finding new ways to interpret a familiar tune, but this pseudo-sexy deconstruction isn't one of them.

The group number that has true appeal is "The Lonely Goatherd," with the foursome manipulating puppets and the puppet Graae handles a bug-eyed Ethel Merman stand-in. Two other early inclusions bear mentioning, if not unearthing. They're the Dietz-Duke "Swattin' the Fly" and the Robin-Rainger "I Should Have Stood in Bed," both from early 's40 Martin credits that didn't make the grade.

Because Inventing Mary Martin has nothing on its mind other than sending the subject a love letter (as Justin West projects images of her over her 1913-1990 life span), Adams, Graae, Halliday and Skinner are barely asked to stop short of clutching their hearts as illustration of their devotion--and of Cole's--to the lady.

Delving into a more critical assessment isn't necessarily asked for, I suppose. Still, referring to Martin as the greatest of the Broadway leading ladies is going a step too far--not when her career overlapped with Ethel Merman's. In addition to Merman's showing up in the "Lonely Goatherd" sequence, she's mentioned as Martin's rival.

Perhaps the box office faves did think of themselves as rivals--and not just the impetus for debates among fans as to which was the better--but they surely weren't at sword's point when they joined forces in their acclaimed 13-minute 1953 Ford 50th Anniversary Show duet. (Now there's a medley that worked.) But when their careers are compared, one difference is that while over time Martin evolved into someone whose warmth began to cloy, Merman retained her astringent personality throughout.

Okay, it isn't obligatory that Cole go into all that, but once he took up the cause, he should have found a way to champion it better than Inventing Mary Martin does.

(Reviewer's note: Although in private life Martin was Mrs. Richard Halliday, Lynne Halliday seems to be no relation.)