By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
Leo Schwartz and DC Cathro’s “Book of Merman” is a high concept idea. Take the “Book of Mormon” and add Ethel Merman. It’s simple! You know you’re getting a cross between “The Book of Merman” and “Annie Get Your Gun.”
In this show, the two Mormon missionaries, Elder Braithewaite (Jerreme Rodriguez) and Elder Shumway (Quinn Patrick Shannon) are faithfully attempting to execute their plan to go door-to-door to recruit people to their religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. One day, they knock on a hot pink door belonging to Ethel Merman (Christine Laitta) and all – um – heck breaks loose.
There’s not really a lot to the plot. Shumway has desires for a life in showbiz (and he as a few other secret desires). Braithewaite is holding on to a tight-lipped secret of his own. While Ethel Merman (who died in 1984) is a complete enigma.
They express all of their feelings in verse. There’s a lot of songs. The funniest of these ditties is “If It’s Not Hard, I Don’t Like It.” A thinly-veiled song of double entrendes that is meant to be about how there is no greater reward to overcome challenging and difficult tasks, but it’s really about penises.
There are two problems with “The Book of Merman.” One; the concept wears thin pretty quickly. Two; a good satirist knows to skewer a mainstream or more serious idea and turn it into comedy. When Richard Lopez and company decided to make fun of “Sesame Street,” he and his pals came up with “Avenue Q.” Recently, right in the Greer Cabaret Theater, Gerard Alessandrini took the Broadway hit “Hamilton” and created the parody “Spamilton.” The problem with “Book of Merman” is they took a really funny musical “Book of Mormon” and made an adequate one.
The cast is working really hard to sell the idea. They are terrific triple threats; each of them can sing, dance and act. But they can’t save this production.
Rodriguez knocks it out of the park, especially with his rendition of the Tin Pan Alley song “Hello Ma Baby!”
Shannon is delightful as Elder Shumway. He is a staple at the Greer and deservedly so. His comedic takes are genius.
Laitta is a true talent, but here she’s imprisoned with Merman’s voice in this show. Her imitation of the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage is not a pleasant noise. She sounds like a cross between Edith Bunker and an air raid siren. Luckily, she does get to sing one song in her regular voice and it’s beautiful.
There also seems to be some crime committed on stage when Merman neither sings nor utters the lines, “There’s no business like show business,” or “Everything’s coming up roses.” If you’re thinking maybe the joke was too obvious, don’t worry – plenty of obvious jokes were made. A lot of clunkers, too.
Tony Ferrieri’s set, however, is a beauty. It’s comprised of the front door, a sumptuous living space and a bus stop all fitting together seamlessly.
John Lindsay McCormick’s costume designs for Laitta’s Merman are gorgeous, and it’s a treat to watch the costume changes.
One audience member, Jason Clark, summed the show up politely and succinctly. He commented, “I’ve seen better stuff here.”
“Book of Merman” runs until March 8 at the Greer Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.