Theater Review: ‘The Book of Merman’ Should Satisfy Both Sets of Fans

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Average: 5 (3 votes)

CHICAGO – One potential theater-goer loves the “The Book of Mormon.” The other would rather stay home and watch old Ethel Merman YouTube videos. Pride Films & Theater offers the ultimate solution by combining both in a campy musical, “The Book of Merman.” Yep, two Elder characters from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints meets foghorn singer Ethel Merman. Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 3.5/5.0
Play Rating: 3.5/5.0

The show takes awhile to get in gear. It’s a cabaret style of original and Merman-esque parody songs that has the thinnest of plots, and the introduction of “The Book of Mormon” characters at first seems like a slight rip-off. But the energy and song craft of the great cast brings it home, and the very talented team of Director David Zak and Book/Songwriter Leo Schwartz took care of the rest.

Book of Merman
Aaron (Sam Button-Harrison), Jacob (Dan Gold) and Ethel (Libby Lane) in ‘The Book of Merman’
Photo credit: Pride Films & Plays

Mormon Elders Aaron (Sam Button-Harrison) and Jacob (Dan Gold) are having the usual difficulties that door-to-door missionaries endure when soliciting their spirituality (the song “Hello”). Their fortunes change when they come upon an odd cottage with the cryptic initials “EM” above the door. Aaron slowly comes to the realization that the zaftig resident (Libby Lane) within the cottage is none other than Ethel Merman, even though the belting singer died in 1984 (“Be a Merman”). This encounter reminds Aaron of his ambitions to appear on the musical stage, much to the chagrin of Jacob (“My Heart is Someplace Else”). It takes Ethel to set the situation straight – but not too straight – and create a passion in the couple (“Because of You”).

Book of Merman
Jacob Sees the Light in ‘The Book of Merman’
Photo credit: Pride Films & Plays

The play/revue is song heavy, with only bits of dialogue between, including a funny running gag about Merman trying to get to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Once the cloud passes about the Mormon angle, the show gets kicky about the relationship between Aaron and Jacob, and uses the Merman vision as a kooky matchmaker. The second act is more about the parody songs – “You’re the Best” for “You’re the Top” and “Better Than You” for “Anything You Can Do” (Cole Porter and Irving Berlin actually wrote songs with Merman in mind) – and audience participation fun, which brightens the proceedings considerably.

Song and book author Leo Schwartz writes a couple of memorable tunes, and the lead cast give them a rousing exposure. The first act show stopper “Be a Merman” is refreshingly biased, and the second act ballad “Because of You” is Original Soundtrack worthy. Director David Zak uses the cramped quarters of “Mary’s Attic” (an upstairs venue on top of the restaurant Mary’s Hamburgers, in Chicago’s Andersonville Neighborhood) perfectly, with the outside of the Merman cottage serving as an appropriate revue stage.

Although some of the Millennials in the audience may think, “Who?” when expressing their inner Merman, it’s great to use her character as a forum for a tribute. If all the world is a stage, then a good portion of that cosmic space belongs to the great Ethel Merman.

Pride Films & Plays presents the World Premiere of ‘The Book of Merman,’ Thursdays - Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 5pm – through February 15th, 2015 – at Mary’s Attic, 5400 North Clark in Chicago. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. Featuring Sam Button-Harrison, Dan Gold and Libby Lane. Book, lyrics and music by Leo Schwartz. Directed by David Zak. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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