Review by Marilyn Lester
Toward the end of “Merman’s Apprentice,” David Merrick appraises Ethel Merman and says he realizes a person can be hard and soft at the same time. In much the same way, this Stephen Cole-David Evans musical can be two things at once: a hilarious good time from start to finish as well as poignant and insightful.
The show is set in 1970 at the end of “the Golden Age of Musicals” – a time when show tunes were hummable, a single producer’s name appeared over the title, and monumental personalities ruled. In this fertile patch of musical titans and clashing egos, Cole, the book writer and lyricist, has struck storyline gold. Ethel Merman was a tough broad with a big voice, a unique style of singing, and a penchant for swearing. David Merrick was, to quote the New York “Times,” a man with a “gift for creating Broadway hits, matched only by his genius for attracting publicity and making enemies.”
Cole’s depiction of these larger-than-life characters is truthful, yet in no way disrespectful. With every joke, gibe and wisecrack, his admiration for them and the ethic they represent is conveyed with respect. Moreover, the story stands on its own merits – no familiarity of the history involved is necessary (although it certainly adds to the enjoyment). Book and lyrics are solidly supported by David Evan’s tuneful and sprightly music, which includes several lovely ballads for musical texture.
Twelve-year-old Muriel Plakenstein (Elizabeth Teeter) has run away from home to become a Broadway star. With grit and luck she meets her idol, Ethel Merman (Klea Blackhurst) and charms the socks off the diva with her dedication, knowledge and adoration. Merman knows a “mini me” when she sees one, and takes the kid under her wing. Blackhurst is the perfect Merman (she herself has embraced her “inner Ethel’ with a Merman tribute show). Her admiration, like Cole’s, is essential for successfully portraying Merman’s rough edges with softness. Teeter is a young actor to watch; she has talent and confidence. Her synergy with Blackhurst is apparent. There’s the feeling that life is imitating art and that give-and-take serves the show very well.
At the time of the Merman-Plakenstein meeting, the diva is rehearsing “Hello Dolly” for Merrick (Bill Nolte), who decides to star Muriel in the first all-child cast of the show. Of course Merrick has an agenda; Merman doesn’t want to sign a long-term contract but it’s only Merman’s clout that will enable Merrick to achieve his goal – beating out “Fiddler On The Roof” for the longest run on Broadway. Nolte captures the Merrick spirit well, with maximum acting mileage dedicated to plotting and scheming.
While all this hilarity is transpiring, there’s also a forceful subtext. It turns out Merman has lost her adult daughter, Ethel junior, aka “Little Bit” – while Muriel’s mother died when she was a very small child. Cole explores the angles of a potential mother-daughter bond with subtle understanding, allowing his characters to smartly recognize the likely relationship traps. In the end, Merman and Muriel decide they will be “chums.”
Muriel’s father, Moe (Adam Grupper) finds his run-away daughter and wants to whisk her home immediately. Muriel, backed by Merman, challenges him. Of course, he wants what’s best for his daughter but doesn’t want to squash her dreams either – and so Moe struggles with the discernment of fantasy versus reality. Grupper plays the paternal conflict convincingly, allowing himself to be wooed by Merman, who promises to keep a watchful eye on Muriel. Representing an older generation still, are Mom and Pop Zimmerman (Anita Gillette and P. J. Benjamin), Merman’s parents. These two are guiding lights and steadfast anchors to reality, demonstrating strength of family ties. Gillette and Benjamin both hit their emotional marks with seriously funny perfection.
As befits a true musical comedy, there’s a happy (and funny) ending. Helping to bring “Merman’s Apprentice” to its gleeful conclusion were Eddie Korbich as Marvin Blackstone, Merrick’s minion; Charles Rooney as Goldie, a friend of Merman’s; and an ensemble of capable singers: Austin Colby, F. Michael Haynie, Desi Oakley and Sarah Sesler. Direction was by Stephen Cole and Amy Burgess, with orchestrations by Lynn Shankel. Larry Yurman was Music Director and pianist, with Rick Heckman and Steve Kenyon on reeds, Dan Urness on Trumpet, Dan Levine on trombone and Joe Mowatt on drums.
Broadway at Birdland: Merman’s Apprentice, June 15, 7 PM
Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, 212-580-3080 There is a $25 cover charge and a $10 food and drink minimum. Visit www.birdlandjazz.com
Photos: Maryann Lopinto