Book of Merman: missionary position

No, that's not Mormon. It's Merman, as in Ethel, and Triangle has a lot of fun with its West Coast premiere parody.

By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE

If Mel Brooks and Cole Porter had a musical baby, it would be The Book of Merman, the parody parody playing at Triangle Productions through December 19 in its West Coast premiere.

That’s Merman, not Mormon.

Ethel Merman was the brassy voice of the Great White Way, who cemented her fan base by cutting through orchestras without a mic, and the fathers of Broadway wrote just for her. Her star was too big and bright for the screen, but her performances onstage in Porter’s DuBarry Was a Lady and as Mama Rose in Sondheim and Laurent’s Gypsy defined the roles. She was on par with Judy Garland and Tallulah Bankhead, but didn’t suffer from their penchant for overindulging in the liquor and medicine cabinets. She worked endlessly up until her death in 1984, and in later performances found a gentle irony as she appeared more frequently to look like she was in drag.

Carver and Shindler divide their affections. Photo: Triangle Productions

Carver and Shindler divide their affections. Photo: Triangle Productions

The Book of Merman, with a book by the playwright Leo Schwartz, is a parody of the hit The Book of Mormon and several of the American standards that Merman made famous. But in this musical, the two Mormon elders have better luck at the end of their missionary day. Elder Shumway (Collin Carver) and Elder Braithwaite (William Shindler) are goodie-two-shoes with milk-and-cookie personalities that come off with a hint of a Bobby, Victor, Hans or Herman from Cabaret – that is to say, their love of an ascetic life, maybe a lifestyle that represses a more human kind of love. Shumway has a little come-hither in his eye, and Braithwaite is all the innocent smiles of a kid at his first county fair.

Opening night Friday was a packed house at the Sanctuary, and the loud chatter from the pews wasn’t about to settle down until Amy Jo Halliday made her appearance as Miss Merman. The crowd’s giddiness inflected the performance playfully through the night. Triangle’s production requires the audience to help out with the jokes: It starts off with our elders sizing up the audience as if they were households they’re trying to convert. Carver and Shindler’s delivery of the opening song, Hello/Salt Lake City, complete with reference to “magical underwear,” was greeted with much delight and gave promise for the rest of the numbers.

Ding goes the doorbell, out steps Miss Merman, and the audience was in an uproar. Halliday makes a convincing Merman: the overdrawn angular eyebrows and lips, the Grecian curled up-do, the jilted jazz-hand movements. She’s somewhere between a diamond-and-platinum-studded lady and a white-gloved broad who doesn’t take any guff. It would’ve been easy to play a caricature of Miss Merman, but Halliday nails the signature mannerisms: the punchy lack of grace and vaudevillian moves across the stage that are the dramatic choreography of someone who can’t dance. Her take on Merman must be in part due to Donald Horn’s direction and familiarity with the material. Halliday does just enough for us to believe she’s Merman, but plays her under (it would be hard to play Merman over) enough to avoid vocal chord polyps.

Making it a trio: Halliday joins Shindler and Carver. Photo: Triangle Productions

Making it a trio: Halliday joins Shindler and Carver. Photo: Triangle Productions

Meanwhile, what about these earnest young Mormons who land on her doorstep? Merman has manners, and doesn’t take the urban-myth advice on how to successfully beat the door-to-door petitioner: she’s ready to indulge the two nice-suited young men. It’s not long before Elder Shumway discovers who she is, and from his mandatory tote bag he pulls a copy of her autobiography. As it just so happens, he’s a fanatic for Miss Merman. Elder Braithwaite weighs in and declares to his fellow missionary: “The angels said the strangest of ladies would need help staying out of Hades.”

The conversion begins, but the conflict doesn’t end. It’s the classic story of god or sex, or can you have both? Which way will the elders go? Who will be taken to the river? Miss Merman finds the elders’ singular topic of their religious zeal a bit bizarre, but never utters a rebuttal: she simply stares wide-eyed like a deer drinking a highball in the headlights.

As Elder Shuman, the superfan, tries to convince Elder Braithwaite of the magical importance of their moment, he sings: “The stage attracts a Merman, like Poland does a German.” The elders can’t step away from Merman’s electric personality, and soon the duo becomes a trio. The highlight of The Book of Merman is a take on Porter’s You’re the Top, with refreshed lyrics: “You’re a Rolex watch, You’re Jon Hamm’s crotch, you’re Margaret Mead, you’re legal weed.” All of The Book of Merman‘s numbers have the sort of offensive punch you’d get if Don Rickles were to update How to Win Friends and Influence People.

For all the diehard Merman fans and collectors of psychotronic music, there’s a reference to her late 1970s disco album. Elder Shumway suggests Merman could take on the hip-hop scene with a cover of Gilbert and Sullivan. He starts off on a good foot by rapping, “I’m the very model of a modern major-general,” but with a few misnomers. Merman doesn’t want to swear, but she was known for her highly honed skill at telling dirty jokes. The song comes off like two Mormon missionaries who’ve never heard a break-beat, and it’s a little embarrassing to see their attempt. The actors’ performance doesn’t fall short, but this is a part in Schwartz’s script could’ve been more developed.

I was a little worried that Halliday didn’t have the famous Merman broadcast, and kept waiting for my ears to bleed. Soon enough the trio had a voice-off and invited the audience to join the competition. A certain fellow with a heavy beard and holiday sweater took the cake, almost out-Mermaning Halliday. But in the end, Halliday delivered the goods. It was a clever device to have the audience in wait for Merman’s false vibrato to finally shake the theater walls.

Triangle Productions’ The Book of Merman continues through December 19. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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