Rita McKenzie as Ethel Merman in "Ethel Merman's Broadway," opening at Laguna Playhouse. (September 16, 2010)

Of all the since-departed celebrities who've shown up to entertain at the Laguna Playhouse recently (George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald), none shines brighter than the queen of Broadway herself, Miss Ethel Merman.

"Ethel Merman's Broadway," a one-woman show with orchestral backing now in residence through Sunday, features not only the rafter-rattling vocal tones of the legendary singer, but the unmistakable physical appearance. Audiences will swear that Ethel herself has risen from the grave she's occupied these past 16 years.

Projecting this amazing illusion is Rita McKenzie, who has toured with her Merman tribute show almost since the death of her subject and thus has her character pretty much down pat. This isn't a narrative piece where the star slips in and out of character; it's Ethel all the way, with her salty views of show business sandwiched in between the brassy vocalizing.

From the opening strains of the ultimate opening number, "Gee, But It's Good to Be Here." to the final crescendo of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," McKenzie takes her audience for a dizzying ride through Merman's career and personal life, with a few choice words for Hollywood. It was, we're reminded, the film capital that thrust Betty Hutton into the title role of "Annie Get Your Gun" and Rosalind Russell into Mama Rose's role in "Gypsy," even though Merman had originated both characters memorably.

Never mind that Merman managed to upstage a who's who of movie funnymen in the hit movie "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," McKenzie's Merman gives her regards to Broadway, and rightly so. Who else had such legends as George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim writing songs especially for them?

McKenzie reminds us that Berlin once remarked that "Ethel Merman can hold a note longer than the Chase Manhattan Bank," and then repeatedly demonstrates that particular art with her astonishing voice. All the classic vocal moments are here, as well as a few more obscure ones, such as "The Animal in Me" from her early days and "World Take Me Back" from her time as an eventual replacement lead in "Hello Dolly."

With pianist and musical director David Snyder, McKenzie warbles the hit number "You're Just in Love" from "Call Me Madam," one of the few Broadway shows in which she also headlined in its movie version. And fans of "Annie Get Your Gun" are in for a real treat — a six-song medley from that show, including the Broadway anthem "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Of course, she saves her big numbers in "Gypsy" — "Some People" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" — for two of the last three selections. And, as Ethel Merman did throughout her career, she earns a standing ovation.

Ethel Merman was a driving force on Broadway, and Rita McKenzie shows us why in this extraordinary retrospective at the Laguna Playhouse.

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: "Ethel Merman's Broadway"

WHERE: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

WHEN: Closing performances tonight at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 & 8, Sunday at 2 p.m.

COST: $40 to $70

CALL: (494) 497-2787