ORLANDO – The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival kicks off at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 16 at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, and runs through May 29. This year the nearly three-week long festival will feature the largest line-up of shows in its history.
Actor and singer Mickey Layman, a veteran performer at Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Shows, was at Fringe 2016 playing the role of R.T. in Freeline Productions’ show “Murder Sleep.” This year, Mickey is back — and he’s bringing Ethel with him.
Merman, that is.
“Everything I Need to Know I Learned From … Ethel Merman” is a 60-minute musical extravaganza that pays tribute to the Broadway and film star remembered fondly for shows like “Gypsy” and “Annie Get Your Gun.” As Mickey noted, “This hilarious show explores the ABCs of survival in the adult world by following the wisest Diva of them all: Ethel Merman!”
But there’s a serious side as well to this one-man-show, featuring plenty of memorable showtunes. As Mickey noted, it’s also about what it was like to grow up gay in a Pentecostal household in the Bible Belt. His saviors: community theater, an old record player, and the vinyl recordings of Broadway’s greatest diva.
In-between rehearsals of some of Ethel’s best known songs like “You’re The Top,” “I Got Lost In His Arms,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” Freeline Media checked in with Mickey to learn more about the show.
Freeline Media: It’s hard to deny that Ethel has “Diva” written all over here. How long have you been a fan?
Mickey Layman: This woman has been very special to me since about the age of 14. I haven’t simply been a fan. I’ve admired not only her work, but the way that she lived her life as well. She and I share a similar philosophy about love.
FM: You mention the show touching on growing up gay in a very religious household — is there a serious side to this production?
Mickey: There are serious moments in the piece. Some deal with moments in my childhood while others focus on the men I’ve loved. I didn’t want a piece that simply entertained. I wanted something that people could relate to. I know it’s cliche, but I want people who may be struggling with someone to know that it does get better. In fact, it can be fabulous!
FM: How did you put this show together? Walk us through the play’s history.
Mickey: The idea for the show is based on a journal that I kept when I was younger. The journal was simply a bunch of notes that I had taken from song lyrics, or things that I had learned about her. I wrote in that journal during some trying times. At moments, that journal and Ethel were my only escape. About 4 years ago I decided that I wanted to format the journal into a cabaret piece. I found that it was more difficult than I had expected. Opening those closed doors began to open old wounds. It was painful for me to experience certain things again. So I pushed it aside and forgot about the project until it came time to apply for Fringe last year. I decided that with all of the changes my life was going through, that it was finally the perfect time to take a look at the show again. I had originally brought on a co-writer, but some of the material turned out to be too painful even for someone else to read, and she backed out of the project. It’s completely understandable. So I picked up where I left off, and chose the stories that I wanted to tell, and the songs that meant the most to me.
FM: What’s the role that Divas like Ethel Merman play in the lives of gay teens, do you think?
Mickey: I think when you look at divas such as Ethel, the draw is that they are larger than life. You can be as big as you wanna be and someone will love you. I love Ethel for everything that she is and was. She was brassy, vulgar, campy, and larger than life. Her life was also tragic. I think gay youth can relate to someone who found a way to smile through the pain. But she didn’t just smile. No. She kept pushing upward and onward. She refused to be kept down. That kind of endurance can be applied to anyone regardless of their sexual orientation.
FM: Finally, what’s new for you at Sleuth’s?
Mickey: Since we last worked together, I’ve learned two new roles, and I’m looking to train for detective in the summer. I also have the pleasure of working with 3 of my fellow drag performers at Sleuths for a Broadway Benefit for Pulse that will take place during Gay Days. I’m also hoping to fine-tune my two cabarets, and send them out to possibly tour the cabaret circuit.
“Everything I Need to Know I Learned From … Ethel Merman” will be performed in the Blue Venue at the following times:
* Wednesday, May 17 at 9:30 p.m.
* Friday, May 19 at 10:15 p.m.
* Saturday, May 20 at 1:30 p.m.
* Monday, May 22 10:30 p.m.
* Wednesday, May 24 at 5:30 p.m.
* 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.