ORLANDO – Legendary Broadway performers, after years of building up a loyal audience, have often discovered that they can build a show around something else: themselves.
After years of entertaining crowds with their renditions of classic show tunes, they finally start to open up about the lives they’ve kept secret from fans. And as gifted performers, they know how to narrate their lives — the joys, the tragedies, the heartache that caused them to struggle behind the scenes, even moments before bursting on the stage, looking radiant and ready to entertain.
And, chances are, they also know there are fans out there who idolize them, their music, and their larger than life personality. In most instances, they probably never know just how powerfully they can inspire someone.
That was the role that legendary Broadway performer Ethel Merman served for Mickey Layman, the singer, actor and comedic performer at Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Shows and many other Orlando theater productions. With a passion for Merman’s music and career, Layman decided to pay tribute to her with his show at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival.
“Everything I Need to Know I Learned From … Ethel Merman” honors the career of the star of “Gypsy” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” the woman that Layman calls “the wisest Diva of them all,” as he sings some of her classic songs, like “You’re The Top,” “I Got Lost In His Arms,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
With a superb voice, a great stage presence and a delightful ability to charm an audience, Layman could easily have built a show around Ethel Merman songs alone and made it work nicely.
But that isn’t even close to what “Everything I Need To Know” sets out to accomplish. This is a show for anyone who struggled as a teen to fit in, to find their place in the community, or who felt radically different from everyone else.
And it’s about how to cope with that.
As much as this show honors Ethel Merman, the real story is about Layman himself. He recalls growing up as a gay man in a Pentecostal household in the Bible Belt, and the painful reaction of his parents when he came out — his mother wouldn’t speak to him for nine months.
Layman has truly developed a fantastic way of establishing a connection with his audience, of building a rapport with them. Even when revealing some of the heartache he’s been through, he still finds ways to make you laugh. Thus, he notes that his mother came up with what she thought was a brilliant idea to get him away from a “deviant” lifestyle: introduce him to the local community theater.
Suddenly, his life had a new meaning.
Along the way, Layman became a performer, as well as a devoted fan of Ethel Merman. He talks about his eventual move to Orlando, the loves in his life, the relationships he built, the pain and stumbles along the way.
And as he’s quick to point out, Ethel Merman always said she wanted to live life to the fullest and never watch the parade pass her by. Whatever life has tossed his way, Layman has lived by the same rules.
This is a wonderful production, and is not only a tribute to Layman’s talents as a performer, but also to what he learned from those divas like Ethel Merman: if you’ve got a good story to tell, and know how to deliver it, go for it.
And while he’s hilarious at times and a great interpreter of Merman’s work, this show is also deeply moving.
because while many of the challenges Layman confronted were initially related to him being gay in a hostile environment, his story is one that anybody, gay or straight, can easily relate to … assuming that at one time you also felt like someone shunted from the crowd, who was unique and different, and didn’t know how to proceed as an outsider.
Watch “Everything I Need To Know,” and you’ll get some marvelous answers.
“Everything I Need to Know I Learned From … Ethel Merman” is being performed in the Blue Venue. Catch it on the following times:
* Friday, May 26 at 8:45 p.m.
* Sunday, May 28 at 10:30 p.m.
To get tickets, visit Orlando Fringe today.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Koby’s New Home”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.