Review: “The Book of Merman” (Pride Films & Plays)

The Book of Merman
The Book of Merman

Show: The Book of Merman

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue: Mary’s Attic (5400 N. Clark St.)

Die Roll: 10

For every great piece of theater like ‘Book of Mormon’ or any number of the classics featuring Broadway’s golden age darling, Ethel Merman, there’s a spate of shows poised to cash in on their popularity. Especially in the improv capital of the world, there are parody shows ready to take political figures, beloved/maligned entertainers and blockbuster movies down a peg. Somewhere in this city right now there’s a troupe ripping your favorite Star Trek episode or Hitchcock movie to shreds.

But, it’s a tall order to satirize an already brilliantly satirical show like ‘Book of Mormon’. The pointed skewering of religion, sexuality, Broadway tropes, and white imperialism on the global stage leaves imitators with very little to add besides a few more perfectly starched white short-sleeve shirts singing their slightly different version of “Hello” with enthusiasm.

Leo Schwartz’s ‘The Book of Merman’ imagines Mormon missionaries Elder Braithwaite (Dan Gold) and Elder Shumway (Sam Button-Harrison) have stumbled onto the house of Ethel Merman (Libby Lane) while canvassing door-to-door. They can’t decide what to do with their uncanny find or if she’s the real McCoy or just an imposter. When the elders can’t agree on where Ms. Merman ranks in importance on their mission, or if they can maintain their ‘never-out-of-each-other’s-sight’ partnership, they resort to musical parody. Sweet homages to popular Merman and Morman numbers pop up, sometimes with a cheeky legal disclaimer, made to fit snugly over the unlikely threesome as a tea cozy. ‘Small World’ becomes ‘Crazy World’, and ‘I Believe’ becomes ‘She Can Sing’ along with countless repurposed numbers (and some original). The heavy lifting has already been done by Sondheim, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, this production just tweaks in a few jokes and modern references to complete their take.

I can commend Libby Lane, Dan Gold and Sam Button-Harrison for giving voice to characters that are sketched very lightly. ‘Book of Merman’ seems a bit more preoccupied with paying tribute to each popular song than finding a good context or reason for them. There will be ‘Everything’s Coming up Ros- I mean, Merman’ come hell or high water; it doesn’t matter so much who sings it or why. Likewise, entire plot lines and character traits can be conjured up or forgotten for the sake of getting the trio to their next song.

David Zak and Leo Schwartz have conjured up a laid-back musical crafted for an audience that is much the same; unconcerned with the minor details that comprise their theatrical mash up, just happy to see a big, brassy diva hob-nob with a couple of chaste Mormon boys, and inspire them to re-direct their hopeless, godly devotion to musical theater and each other.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Who ordered the Book of Mormon/Ethel Merman mash up?

RATING: d8- “Not Bad, Not Great”