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, 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, and DC Cathro, who also directs this production, have 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, one-act cabaret show that’s most entertaining and appearing at Stage 773, courtesy of Flying Elephant Productions..
Elder Braithwaite and Elder Shumway, two likable young Mormon lads, have been sent to an unnamed city. They’re going door-to-door in their mission to recruit lost souls to accept their free book and, perhaps, to convert to their religious army. Defeated by continual rejection and almost ready to call it a (Latter) day, they ring one final doorbell, only to discover that behind the pink door is the legendary star of Broadway’s Golden Age of Musicals, Ethel Merman. With minimal dialogue, this joyous entertainment is sort of a cabaret operetta, featuring a score of songs that cleverly satirize the popular tunes from Lopez’s Book of Mormon. The show’s second half contains a little more substance and spoken interaction; it also features, among other ditties, several original tunes that parody the most familiar 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’re being played in a slightly different key. And, it should be stressed, Schwartz‘s songs are delightfully fun and melodious in their own right. His best song is a touching ballad called “Because of You.” This compact little musical resembles 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 Merman in one compact show.
Cathro’s directorial talent is especially suited to his own over-the-top entertainment and he makes this musical sing. In what could be a static production in lesser hands, Mr. Cathro keeps his cast moving around Nicholas James Schwartz’s cleverly versatile set, and even sends them down the aisles. He’s also infused his production with a great deal of heart while stressing the show’s theme that it’s important to be true to yourself. The production features some spunky choreography by Jenna Schoppe and staging that mainly moves the characters around the Merman house. Cathro truly showcases the talents of his three performers, accompanied by the melodic talents of Musical Director Tyler Miles on piano and Stevenson Valentor on percussion.
Three top-notch performers expertly create the show’s characters and who sing Schwartz’s 15 humorous songs with enthusiasm. Nicole Frydman, a recent Chicago transplant (and who eerily bears a strong resemblance to Merman), plays the vibrato-voiced diva. She energetically belts the bejeezus out of every song, 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). Costumed in several outfits from the 1950’s, created by costumer Rachel Sypniewski, Frydman offers belting vocals that do Merman proud.
Another newcomer to Chicago, Samuel Aquilla Massey plays Elder Aaron Shumway, the repressed gay, Broadway baby of the Mormon duo. Flamboyant, gleeful and hilarious, this likable, handsome young actor personifies the spirit of this show, singing and dancing with power and perfection. He brings down the house with his double-entendre laden song, “If It’s Not Hard, I Don’t Like It.” Massey also leads a very funny rap version of a popular Gilbert & Sullivan patter song. Michael Idalski, playing Elder Jacob Braithwaite, is the more cautiously reserved young Mormon, whose devotion to his religion prompts him to deny his affinity for show tunes or his romantic interests in anyone. It turns out, he’s harboring a few of his own secrets, as well. Idalski, somewhat new to the Chicago musical theatre scene, is a charismatic and powerful singer. He may be remembered for playing played Brad in Underscore’s wonderful “Carrie 2.” Hopefully, audiences will be seeing more of these three talented actors in the future.
Featuring a tuneful array of songs that parody both Book of Mormon and almost every Ethel Merman classic, such as “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Gypsy” and “Anything Goes,” Schwartz’s exuberant new musical parody is lively and lighthearted. Throughout all the clever songs and dance moves, the message that theatergoers will take with them is how important it is to simply be yourself and to appreciate others for who they are. Directed and performed with pizzazz and polish by co-book writer, Cathro, this entertaining show will appeal especially to Broadway musical aficionados, as well as to audiences looking for a bright, breezy, feel-good show to warm up Chicago’s winter evenings.
Flying Elephant Productions presents “The Book of Merman” through January 6, 2019, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.