Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Evan Hanover.
The Book of Merman has to be one of those creative endeavors that started with its title. A parody of The Book of Mormon in which two missionaries knock on the door of Ethel Merman? We’re talking high-concept heaven. With the right cast and creative team, this thing is a guaranteed hit, right? Well, Flying Elephant productions has put together the right team and cast, and its current revival of The Book of Merman (which enjoyed a 2015 run from Pride Films and Plays and is currently running off-Broadway) is simply wonderful.
Leo Schwartz and DC Cathro’s play features a sharp, witty, and even at times poignant book and songs that take cues from (but don’t necessarily parody in any direct way) songs from the more well-known musical as well as songs from the Ethel Merman canon. If you are familiar with The Book of Mormon, Gypsy, and Annie Get Your Gun, you’ll no doubt recognize the origins of many of these tunes, but Schwartz has a lot of fun reimagining them, music and all, for this show.
The basic story of The Book of Merman has two Mormons on their mission knocking on doors and being rejected until they accidentally come upon Merman’s home. She invites them in and, when one of the Mormons realizes who they are with, major fanboying ensues...despite the fact that, as he knows from her biography, Ethel Merman died in 1984. Confused by this, he nonetheless becomes convinced that, somehow, he is visiting the famous singer, and the serendipity of this occurrence causes him to re-evaluate what he wants to do with his life.
The litany of original comic songs allows the three perfectly-cast actors to show off, and they do. Nicole Frydman, playing Merman, may need a mic to amplify her belting (the real Merman famously did not), but in every other sense she is an excellent doppelganger. With an upturned, curly wig and her outstanding voice, Frydman-as-Merman is very easy to believe, and also very likable. Elder Shumway (Samuel Aquilla Massey) apparently believes he has fallen through a gap in time, for he is so utterly taken by her (and his amazing good fortune in discovering the whereabouts of his idol) that he bonds with her almost instantly. Elder Braithwaite (Michael Idalski), on the other hand, a Mormon much more grounded, both in his mission and in life, than Shumway, tries his best to keep Shumway’s focus where it is supposed to be.
Massey is outstanding as the young man infatuated by Merman. His broad facial expressions and sheer enthusiasm help sell the concept despite what Braithwaite would argue is a lack of logic. And Idalski is equally good as the faith-driven Braithwaite, who does not stray from his mission despite some private theatrical predilections of his own. The externalizing of Massey and the internalizing of Idalski complement each other perfectly, making it easy to see why these two would be friends, but also easy to see that they are one celebrity-sighting away from potentially breaking up. That becomes the key to this one-act musical, especially in its second half when Shumway begins to waver about fulfilling his obligation to the church and we begin to understand just how much these two need each other.
As to Frydman, whether she is belting Merman-like numbers, chewing great chunks of scenery as she wanders through the show with her Merman voice and her Merman movements, she is simply golden. And throughout the show she has a grand time with everything the authors ask her to do (even rap!). But it is one final song in which she appears onstage without the kitschy wig and swagger that she outdoes herself. Like the men, Frydman shows the tender side of her character even more beautifully than she does the broad caricatured side. It is moments such as this that make the play work so well, and director Cathro does a remarkable job bringing them out. Cathro and choreographer Jenna Schoppe also block the comic scenes brilliantly, so that even on this tiny stage the show is visually appealing.
The Book of Merman is a silly and campy show, to be sure, as you’d imagine from its title. But it is also a show that has a huge heart, and Cathro makes sure to keep that heart visible even when things are very comical so that the more poignant moments, especially the 11:00 power ballad, work beautifully. Though it probably isn’t necessary because its title alone is a recommendation, I thoroughly recommend this production. It’s simply fun, and sometimes that is exactly what we need. That and a little more Ethel Merman in our lives.
The Book of Merman is a Flying Elephant production now playing at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago through Jan 6. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.