With a title like The Book of Merman, one might expect a big, brassy, loud and overbearing musical, but in fact the creators, Leo Schwartz, who wrote the score and DC Cathro, his co–book writer, have turned out a parody of show music that’s surprisingly unassuming and mild-mannered. One might easily guess there’ll be sparks that fly from just what the title implies: an unabashed mashup of The Book of Mormon and the style of Ethel Merman. Happily, the show avoids the vulgarity of The Book of Mormon while smartly ribbing show-music aficionados and playing off several Merman hits from Cole Porter, Jule Styne and Irving Berlin.
Two Mormon missionaries in New York, Elder Shumway (Chad Burris) and Elder Braithwaite (Kyle Ashe Wilkinson), are having a terrible day—dog bites, threats from Jehovah’s Witnesses—when they show up at the door marked “E.M. Welcome.” The naïve Braithwaite thinks it means “Every Mormon Welcome.” But Shumway cottons more quickly to the fact that the inhabitant is Ethel Merman; once she appears, they are swept up in her busy day.
Initially Merman thinks they’re collecting for charity rather than missionaries. In Cathro and Schwartz’s world, she is an approachable force of nature and not as edgy as one might expect a great star—or, indeed, this particular star—to be. She is, in fact, a bit scattered. She generously offers to write a check for whatever it is they need money. This is a dream Merman: kind, affable, unruffled, welcoming. Perhaps big stars were this way before the advent of social media, but one suspects a heavy dose of wishful thinking anchors the portrait.
Schwartz’s first song deftly sets up a template for the show’s genial skewering. The frantically busy Merman explains that she’s in a hurry, singing:
Most people sit on their ass
Scratching nuts and passing gas
Well that’s okay for those people
With no dreams to achieve...
Broadway aficionados will connect the rhythms immediately to Stephen Sondheim’s “Some People” from Gypsy. There are jokes in both script and score, but presumably those who are not immersed in show music can absorb the context and enjoy the result too.
Schwartz’s score is chockablock with Merman references. There’s a takeoff of “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning” from Annie, Get Your Gun; “Small World” references another Styne/Sondheim number from Gypsy; and there’s a list song modeled on Porter’s “You’re the Top” from Anything Goes that capitalizes on the sheer fun of the rhymes:
You’re an Easter peep
You’re Meryl Streep
You’re best in show.
They are not direct parodies: although the rhythms and rhymes follow the patterns of the originals, Schwartz’s musical references are subtle, avoiding outright theft of the famous melodies.
Three strong performers help put over the songs. As Merman, Carly Sakolove is zaftig and intense without really being overbearing. She uses grand gestures, and she belts with a powerful voice, but she’s never intimidating the way any star, let alone Ethel Merman, would be. And if the show has a weakness, it’s the explanation of why she’s not who she claims to be.
As the Book of Mormon avatars, Burris (who play one of the missionaries in the national tour) and Wilkinson are superb. Burris is the plump, eager one, chomping at the bit to finish their commitment because he’s become bitten by the performance bug. There are also subtle hints that his love of show music is a marker for gayness. Late in the show, Braithwaite, following the discovery that he is a closeted songwriter, sings “Because of You,” which he wrote. The blond Wilkinson delivers the romantic number with a strong voice and presence:
The world because of you
Is such a brighter place
Because of you
I’m grateful for each day
At its conclusion, Shumway impulsively kisses Braithwaite, making apparent the hitherto roiling subtext of Ethel Merman adoration, Broadway show music, and the pairing of two male protagonists. (Anyone who reads the program closely will note that the original production was staged by Pride Films and Plays in Chicago.)
Director/choreographer Joe Langworth keeps the tone as uncommonly gentle and warm as the book. When the Mormons are upset, their “swearing” takes the form of “Son of a biscuit eater!” and “Shiitake mushrooms!”
The Book of Merman isn’t a world-beating musical, and its Aesopian moral is old hat, but its modesty and gentle humor turn out to be satisfying virtues. It’s an enjoyable show, put together by talented writers, and the cast performs it well.
The Book of Merman plays through Dec. 30 at St. Luke’s Theater (308 W. 46th St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (except for a Friday matinee replacing the evening performance on Nov. 23); matinees are at 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and information, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit bookofmermanmusical.com.