Chicago Theater Review: THE BOOK OF MERMAN (Pride Films and Plays at Mary’s Attic and Apollo Studio)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 18, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

SING OUT, ETHEL!

What a difference a vowel makes! After his catchy title The Book of Merman, it seems that Leo Schwartz’ delightful world premiere musicale practically wrote itself: You just follow the formula, “Fish Out of Water meets Irrepressible Icon.”

Mormon missionaries on a two-year stint to convert more Latter Day Saints, young Elders Aaron Shumway and Jacob Braithwaite are sick of encountering dogs, nudes, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then they ring a buzzer that says “E.M. Welcome.” It doesn’t mean “Every Mormon Welcome” as the hopeful proselytizers imagine. The owner’s name ain’t “Welcome” either. Of course, it’s the sacred bungalow of Ethel Merman, who didn’t die after all in 1984 but lives on a non-descript street, her neighbors a slatternly Elvis and funky Bette Davis (or is the other way around?).

Anyway, sweetly staged by David Zak for Pride Films and Plays at Mary’s Attic, this meeting of squeaky-clean, fresh-faced, sexually-stunted Utah goody goodies with the brassy, bumptious, leather-lunged Queen of Broadway yields a very pleasant parody-tribute, a transformative romp Sam Button-Harrison, left, Dan Gold and Libby Lane star in the world premiere of The Book of Merman for Pride Films and Plays at Mary's Attic in Chicagothat fully earns its delicious title. At first, Ethel, who’s about to renew her license at the DMV, thinks they’re selling magazines, not Jesus to a Jew. Never mind: The real deal is the showbiz symbiosis that marks this meeting. Here opposites don’t just attract, they put on a show.

The boys’ conversion to fabulousness is no slam dunk. But it helps that they sense “My Heart is Someplace Else.” Haunted by a dream not unlike the one in Gypsy, Aaron (adorable Sam Button-Harrison) is a frustrated Broadway camp follower, gaga over seeing his idol (“She’s Ethel Merman!”). Ripe for Times Square corruption, stage-struck Aaron keeps La Merman’s autobiography in his backpack. He dreams of limos in Gotham. Resisting the urge to belt out ballads, demurer Jacob (hunky Dan Gold) can’t immediately bring himself to desert the cause of Brigham Young, though his repressed longings for Jacob demand a different destiny.

It’s up to Libby Lane’s ebullient, earth-mother Ethel to teach them (via strategically familiar but not quite copyrighted standards from Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy) that the goddess is not godless. They just need to “Be a Merman” because “You’re The Best” (here updated). In no time at all “Everything’s coming up Merman!” In turn they update her act: Helping her to forget the fiasco of her 1979 disco album, Aaron gets her to rap to Gilbert and Sullivan, no less (“Ethel’s Big Come Back”). You haven’t lived until…

This 90-minute, two-act confection could easily have been a mean roast (and “She’s Me!” does expose Ethel’s ego on all frequencies). But it’s too happy to be nasty, getting audience members to briefly ape the diva by crooning “There’s No Business Like Show Business” or letting pent-up Mormon lads drink coffee and curse (“Son of a Motherless Goat”)–sort of. Schwartz’ serviceable songs (and some delicious double entendres) may suffer from twisted lyrics, but the gay duo “Because of You” manages to captivate without sentiment. Robert Ollis’s musical direction is, as usual, flawless flair.

Though she may lack the killer vibrato with which Merman could lift roofs and burst eardrums, Ms. Lane, radiant in an iridescent muumuu, makes the most of “Ethel’s turn.”  So happy to be here, Lane’s very amiable superstar anchors Schwartz’ rainbow fantasy in more than wishful thinking or contagious homage. This is a show to melt the snow at least through February 15. It may well inspire spring to arrive, and that means everything’s coming up you-know-what.

photo courtesy Pride Films and Plays

The Book of Merman
Mary’s Attic, 5400 N Clark St.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 5
ends on February 15, 2015
for tickets, call 800.838.3006 visit Brown Paper Tickets

then moves to
Apollo Studio Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln
February 26 – April 5, 2015 EXTENDED to May 17, 2015
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3:30
for tickets, call 773-935-6100 or visit Ticketmaster
for more info, visit www.pridefilmsandplays.com

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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