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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Everything's Coming Up Mormons in Pride Films and Plays' The Book of Merman



The Book of Merman - the new musical comedy by playwright Leo Schwartz - couldn't have a more perfect and inviting title. And I would think by now that almost everyone is familiar with the Tony Award-winning musical, The Book of Mormon, which is about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to a remote village to share their sacred text. Mr. Schwartz has borrowed this simple premise, but instead of Uganda, his characters - Aaron and Jacob - are ringing the doorbells of small town America. And one day Ethel Merman opens the door. Yes, folks, that belting star of Broadway (Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun) - who died in 1984 at age 76 - has come back to life. Hence, the amusing title, which certainly piqued my interest to attend Pride Films and Plays' world premiere production. And although the show wasn't exactly what I expected, I still enjoyed myself.

Schwartz's book is stretched pretty thin for its 90-minute running time (with a 10-minute intermission). The boys get to know Ms. Merman as well as each other while singing a lot of catchy tunes - and that's about it. But Schwartz's score is chock-full of some fun songs, including a few clever parodies of Merman standards - "Most People" (Gypsy's "Some People"), "You're the Best" (Anything Goes' "You're the Top") and "Better Than You" (Annie Get Your Gun's "Anything You Can Do"). Of course, one must suspend his disbelief at the door regarding the mystery of Ethel's resurrection in 2015 and the fact that her neighbors are Bette Davis and Elvis Presley. Schwartz doesn't offer us any explanations, so we - along with his characters - just have to accept this bizarre world without question.

As for the performances, I assumed beforehand that Ethel - played by the talented Libby Lane - would be the star of the show, but Schwartz's version of this bawdy, larger-than-life actress is surprisingly subdued at times. I almost forgot that the sweet lady I was watching was the original "Mama Rose" of Gypsy. I guess I was wanting a bit more "Merm" in my Merman, which Lane does get the chance to convey with her singing. But with Ethel playing a somewhat supportive role, this does allow the real stars of the show to shine. Sam Button-Harrison and Dan Gold as Aaron and Jacob, respectively, are both terrific with great voices and comedic timing. And you ultimately care about these two young men and their evolving friendship - at least I did. So my recommendation is to go for the Merman, but stay for the Mormons, and you'll have a good time.

Pride Films and Plays' The Book of Merman runs through February 15 at Mary's Attic (5400 N. Clark) in Chicago. Tickets may be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com or by phone at 1-800-838-3006. For more information, visit www.pridefilmsandplays.com.

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