Ah, for those good old days of the “Ziegfeld Follies” and other Broadway shows of that era. The Ziegfeld Society, devoted to keeping those memories alive, stages events that evoke the stars and the productions in which they flourished. The fabled Marilyn Miller was the lady of the hour in “The First Marilyn—Marilyn Miller,” staged February 26 in the Grace & St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at 123 West 71st Street, New York. It was good fortune to have the ideal performer to play Miller.
First Merrill Grant emerged as the child Marilyn, looking very Shirley Temple-like, a feat aided by costume and a chirpy little voice. Next Grant turned up as Miller imitating Sophie Tucker. She looked nothing like Sophie, but reached for the illusion with a deep voice and Tucker’s renowned hot mama style. If that combination doesn’t show range, I don’t know what does.
For the rest of the show Grant played Miller in the various phases of her career—a major Broadway star who could sing and dance and turn men’s heads. About the same size as Miller, she was a good choice physically as well as talent-wise. The mini musical was narrated by Chris Ware, playing Chester O’Brien, Miller’s third husband.The book for the show, very trim with just enough detail to fill in the bare essentials, covered Miller’s loss of her first husband in an auto accident, and also noted how she died an early death at the age of 37 in 1936.
The show, which had only two weeks of rehearsal time, was written, produced and directed by Mark York, with David Auxier as choreographer and Aaron Gandy as musical director. Others in the cast included Alfred DalPino, Sara Delaney, Jeffrey Pew, Jeffrey Stevens and Sarah-Louise Young. Notables portrayed, with the cast in multiple roles, included Lee Shubert, Billie Burke, Anna Held, Jerome Kern , Dorothy Parker and Otto Harbach.
Costumes played an important part. Credit George Halley with the costume design, and the result was a colorful, small-scale fashion spectacle. Between songs, Grant had to race behind the curtain for frequent costume changes. Songs associated with Miller were highlighted, including “Look for the Silver Lining.”
The presentation, like the setting, was unpretentious, which enabled the audience to enjoy the charm of it all in the spirit of The Ziegfeld Society’s mission. Presumably, the musical can be honed further for future offerings.