By Colin Douglas
With the phenomenal success of Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez’s cleverly written, irreverent and infectious musical comedy, The Book of Mormon, (now appearing in Chicago) it was inevitable that someone would eventually write a parody of this mega popular Broadway show.
Leo Schwartz, a Jeff Award-winning composer for his 2013 hit musical, Under the Rainbow Flag, has accomplished this feat. With a nod to Lopez’s songs, as well as respect for all the hits made famous by Ethel Merman, Schwartz took a thin premise and created a 90-minute, two-act cabaret show that’s most entertaining.
Pride Films and Plays world premiere production, The Book of Merman began a six-week engagement at the Apollo Theater Studio, after playing to sellout crowds at Mary’s Attic in Andersonville since its opening in January.
The story revolves around Aaron and Jacob, two young Mormon lads, stationed in a small town, going door-to-door on their proselytizing mission. Defeated by constant rejection and almost ready to call it a (Latter) day, they ring one final doorbell, only to discover that the house belongs to the legendary diva of Broadway’s Golden Age of Musicals, Ethel Merman. With minimal dialogue, this joyous entertainment is sort of a cabaret operetta, with many songs, especially in Act I, cleverly satirizing Lopez’s most popular tunes from his Book of Mormon. Act II contains a bit more substance and spoken interaction and features, among others, music parodying the canon of songs made famous by Merman.
Schwartz has expertly tweaked the lyrics and melodies of the original tunes just enough to make his new songs feel familiar but, to those who know these Broadway standards, sound as if they’ve been played in a slightly different key. That’s not to say that Schwartz‘s songs aren’t delightfully fun and melodious in their own right. His best song is a touching ballad called “Because of You.” This vest pocket musical is similar to Gerard Alessandrini’s very popular and equally clever “Forbidden Broadway” series. In them, the composer parodies currently running productions, satirizing a different musical or famous actor in each song. Schwartz has chosen to parody both The Book of Mormon and Broadway legend Ethel Merman in one entire show.
David Zak’s directorial talent is especially suited to this kind of over-the-top entertainment and he makes this musical “sing out, Louise.” In what could be a static production in lesser hands, Zak keeps his cast moving around the tiny stage, down the aisles and, at one point, even incorporates a few audience members into the festivities. With a bit of spunky choreography by Sarah Goldberg and staging that primarily moves the characters in and around the Merman house, Zak showcases the talents of his three performers, along with the piano talents of musical director Robert Ollis .
Three top-notch performers expertly create the show’s cartoon-like characters and sing Schwartz’s 15 humorous songs with enthusiasm. Libby Lane, seen in many Hell in a Handbag productions, (and who bears a strong resemblance here to young Ann Miller) sings the devil out of every ditty, like “Most People” (a riff on “Some People” from Gypsy), “Crazy,” “Look at Them” and “She’s Me!” (reminiscent of “Rose’s Turn,” also from Gypsy).
Working those silky caftans, created by costumer Raquel Adorno, Lane offers belting vocals that do Ethel Merman proud. Remembered for his outstanding performance in Under the Rainbow Flag, Sam Button-Harrison plays Elder Aaron, the repressed gay, Broadway baby of the Mormon duo. Bubbly, gleeful and hilarious, this charismatic, handsome, likable young actor continually personifies the spirit of this show, singing and dancing with power and perfection. Dan Gold, playing Elder Jacob, is the more cautious, reserved young Mormon, whose devotion to his religion prompts him to deny his affinity for show tunes, as well as any his romantic interests in anyone. Gold is another powerful singer who has performed in several musicals at Light Opera Works. Hopefully, audiences will be seeing more of him throughout Chicagoland in the near future.
Featuring a tuneful array of songs that parody both B” and almost every Merman classic, such as Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy and Anything Goes, Leo Schwartz’s exuberant new musical parody is lively and lighthearted. Directed and performed with pizzazz and polish, this entertaining show will especially appeal to Broadway musical aficionados, as well as to LGBT audiences and their straight sidekicks looking for a breezy, feel-good show to warm up the winter evenings.
“The Book of Merman” is presented through April 5 by Pride Films and Plays at the Apollo Studio Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available by calling 773-935-6100 and more information is available here. Additional reviews by Colin and information about other area productions may be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.