The Review: The Book of Merman
“Knock, knock”. “Who’s there?” “Merman”. “Merman who?” Ethel the one and only. And boy is Ethel Merman in the house tonight, risen from the dead but in no way is she a haunting ghost (ok, I never said I was a joke writer). But she certainly is the real deal, at least most of the time, with that larger than (after) life voice and that big stage presence that brings as much kick as one can to the St. Luke Theatre. And indirectly coming from the much more polished The Book of Mormon, she’s visited by two downtrodden Mormons, in search of souls to save. Just like that funnier show on Broadway, the unmatched pair: the optimistic dynamo, Elder Braithwaite, played with zesty appeal by the big grinning cutie Kyle Ashe Wildinson (Florida Rep’s Becky’s New Car), and the uncomfortably closeted broadway junkie, Elder Shumwaky, played with jazzy handed enthusiasm by the well voiced Nicholas J. Pollina (Netflix’s “Brain Child) – taking over for Chad Burris (National Tour: The Book of Mormon), knock the doors down, setting the stage for some big lunged hilarity.
As it turns out, both these white shirt and black tied boys are in as much need of salvation as the reportedly-dead Merman who opens that lovely pink door and ushers them into her Christmas in August living room. Played with festive appeal by the wonderfully gifted Carly Sakolove (The Marvelous Wonderettes), her scatterbrained Ethel has a few tricks, songs, checks, and lessons up inside her glittering gown, courtesy of the creative costumer, Pablo Borges. Skolove, best known to audiences and YouTube viewers for her Broadway and pop diva tribute show “I’m Every Woman,” and for her video, “Broadway Divas Send in the Clowns,” featuring her impersonations of some of Broadway’s biggest stars, sings with power and clarity, doing Merman proud most of the time in songs that parody classics, solidly rendered by musical director and orchestrator, Aaron Benham (ATC’s Xanadu). She falters here and there, sometimes sashaying in and out of a note like she does with the follow-spot that doesn’t always want to follow. Her diction is as clear as a slap in the face, and when she nails both the spot and the song, it’s pretty incredible the voice that streams out.
The show is a send up of both the very funny musical that is knocking on doors down on Broadway and the legendary voice of Ethel Merman, a woman almost too big for the stage, and definitely too grand for the screen. Not many people can do this, but the talented cast sings strong and wonderfully joyful, rising up even when the material they have been given doesn’t match and the sound and microphones are giving the crew some problems the night I went. I give them all credit, as it’s a difficult space to work in, the St. Luke’s Theatre, as there are numerous shows that are playing every night on that same small stage, so kudos to the talented scenic and lighting designer Josh Iacovelli (Office Musical Parody) for doing as well as he did with the limitations he was given. The lighting fluctuated, with actors sitting in the dark just feet away from the circle of light they should have been in. But the main problem with the show, is that it just isn’t as funny as it should be. With Leo Schwartz (Under a Rainbow Flag) credited with writing the music, lyrics, and cowriter of the book with DC Cathro (Family Holiday), the show stays solidly in the cute category, and rarely tap dances its way into the hilarious. Both the book and the lyrics could really use some more satirical juice, sailing along on the actor’s charisma more than the lines given. Also, the direction and choreography by Joe Langworth (Suicidal Life Coach) never feels very tight or inspiring. It remains solidly in the framework of the obvious, never reaching the heightened hilarity of the much wiser and better Popcorn Falls currently slaying the stage a few streets over at the off-Broadway Davenport Theatre. It’s a shame, because with a smarter and wittier book and lyrics, utilizing the same fun ideas of the music, and with a stronger vision in its direction, this show could rise up to the level these three fun performers deserve.