By Steve Nardoni
I told someone I had seen this. He accurately surmised that it was some kind of spoof on “The Book of Mormon” but had no idea who Ethel Merman was. He had no idea who Ethel Merman was. He had no idea who Ethel Merman was! What?
So I guess that if one is unfamiliar with the American musical theater , would one think The Book of Merman was a typo, or even better, a frolicking fun-filled romp of fish-tailed men in white shirts and ties swimming in the Great Salt Lake and proselytizing about Restorationist Christianity?
Well, kids, as Ethel may put it: “Get yer heads outta yer wazoo!” The premise of this silly, fun show is exactly what any self-respecting NYC theater regular, or gay man, would have conjectured: somehow Mormon missionaries and “The Merm” meet, with wonderful consequences. But if you had no idea who Ethel Merman was, there was no better way to get acquainted with her than through this Book of Mormon plot-line.
Elder Shumway (seemingly “fey” and a little jaded) and Elder Braithwaite (the cock-eyed optimist) who are played by the very talented Chad Burris and Kyle Ashe Wilkinson, are working the nabe, knocking on doors, and dodging the perils of naked women, biting dogs, and pissy Jehovah’s Witnesses protecting their turf. The Elders seem to tow the company line: work the missionary schtick for two years and get back to “antiseptic” Salt Lake City and live the Mormon life. Their intro number “Good Day” establishes them in that other musical while prepping us for the fun to come.
The last door they knock on has the initials “E.M.”
“Ding-dong” and who pops out but the irascible Ethel Agnes Zimmerman, aka the one and only Ethel Merman (an incredible imitation of Ms. Merman by Carly Sakalove) Elder Shumway is floored and ecstatic, and immediately pulls out his Merman autobiography to the aghast of Elder Braithwaite. And Ethel pulls out her song “Most People,” a riff of the classic “Some People” from Gypsy and brings under her wing men that need to be shown the way. Ms. Sakalove creates the Ethel we know and love: a brassy, strong voice, an ego the size of Kansas, a profane sense of humor, and the chutzpah of always being right.
The show then frolics through parodies of the recognizable classics (like the aforementioned “Most People” plus “You’re the Best” for “You’re the Top” and “Everything’s Coming Up Merman” for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
But it’s the original songs composed by Leo Schwartz that tickle and are moving. The book is by Schwartz and DC Cathro, with direction by Joe Langworth. Particular to note are the hilarious “Son of a Motherless Goat” where the boys insult each other with Mormon-sanctioned curses (“Cheese and Crackers”- “Holy shish kebab! Son of a bishop! You’re ucking fugly”), the double-entendred “If It’s Not Hard, I Don’t Like It” and the inspirational ballad “Because of You” which captures the theme that inspiration for our lives is everywhere as long as we look for it. He also conjures up the unfortunate “The Ethel Merman Disco Album” by inserting the song “Ethel’s Big Comeback” which the cast performs in guffaw-producing Rap.
Throughout the show Burns, Wilkinson and Sakalove mug, dance, and sing up a storm; each one of them have incredible voices and comedic timing that add to the persona of their characters and to the fun of the production. Of course “The Merm” is the catalyst to the real salvation of the Elders who, through her, discover their purpose. What a way to be “born-again”!
Photos: Russ Rowland
The Book of Merman St. Luke’s Theater, 308 West 46th Street through December 30, 2018.