The witty score with music and lyrics by Schwartz is a collection of both pastiche songs based on numbers Merman made famous and new ones that fit her style that suggest other famous songs. Directed and choreographed by Joe Langworth in a brisk and breezy fashion, The Book of Merman is a diverting, entertaining show that will be best enjoyed by musical comedy aficionados who know their Merman from their Mary Martin as there are a great many in-jokes.
In homage to the opening of The Book of Mormon, two young missionaries, Elders Shumway and Braithwaite aren’t having a very good day going door to door in order to find people interested in their message. They have doors slammed in their faces, have to deal with a nude homeowner, and are bitten by a dog. When they get to a pink door, a sign says “E.M. Welcome,” which Braithwaite, the more dedicated elder, takes to mean “Every Mormon.” The kind lady takes them for magazine salesmen and invites them in so that she can write them a check.
Seeing the Christmas tree in August, Shumway who always carries Merman’s autobiography with him in his shoulder bag, as well as the name on her check realizes that this is the famous First Lady of the American Musical Stage. The square Braithwaite doesn’t recognize her as he has never heard of Merman before. Apparently, they appear to be in an alternate Hollywood with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Elvis Presley, David Cassidy, and Ethel Merman as neighbors on the same block. But didn’t Ethel Merman die in 1984 according to the biographies?
Ethel takes a long time to realize that they are Mormon missionaries even with their praying, but when Braithwaite declares his discontent with their mission, he reveals that what he really wants is to follow in Merman’s footsteps. Eventually both Braithwaite and Ethel have their own epiphanies that you have to be yourself in order to be successful. Shumway and Braithwaite get to sing their version of “Because of You,” while Ethel sings “A Little Bit of Me.”
Carly Sakolove, a plus size woman with a plus sized voice, puts one in mind of Merman without competing with her. Her ebullient personality makes her Ethel a delightfully effervescent and upbeat character. She gets to sing many of Merman’s hits with new witty lyrics: “Most People” and “Crazy” inspired by Gypsy, “Better Than You,” (Annie Get Your Gun), and “You’re the Best (Anything Goes). In a nod to Merman’s notorious Disco Album, the threesome engages in a rap version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “I am the very model of a modern major general.”
Cast to resemble the originals in The Book of Morman, chubby Chad Burris and blond Kyle Ashe Wilkinson are refreshingly youthful and spirited. Burris has the more colorful role as the closet musical comedy queen, but both turn out to have big, legit voices when they ultimately let loose. They also take a journey of self-discovery in the course of the show.
Josh Iacovelli’s unit set works well for the entire show while Pablo Borges’ several colorful costume changes for Sakolove put us in mind of Merman. The singers are expertly backed by music director and orchestrator Aaron Benham on piano, Kris Rogers on bass and Brandon Ilaw on percussion. The Book of Merman is a light-hearted romp through some of musical comedy’s most famous moments that also has an appealing message that applies to everyone.
The Book of Merman (extended Saturdays and Sundays through February 10, 2019)
St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.bookofmermanmusical.com
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission