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The Book of Merman won’t win many converts | Theater Review

Leo Schwartz and DC Cathro’s musical is a title in search of a show. A mildly campy spoof of The Book of Mormon, this 75-minute one-act focuses on two young Mormon men in contemporary Los Angeles going door to door to convert people to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. When the mismatched missionaries, devout Elder Braithwaite and doubtful Elder Shumway, show up at the home of a lady who appears—and claims—to be legendary Broadway diva Ethel Merman, she presumes they are raising money for their church and invites them in. While she comes to realize they are trying to save her soul, not just sell her a magazine subscription, the stage-struck Shumway becomes obsessed with the possibility that his hostess with the mostest really is The Merm—even though the actress (real name Ethel Agnes Zimmermann) died in 1984 at age 76.

The improbable and flimsily structured action—peppered with creaky cliches about show biz, homosexuality, and religion—seems mainly to be an excuse for Schwartz’s songs, which range from tepid takeoffs of Merman classics (“You’re the Top,” “Anything You Can Do,” “Some People”) to generic feel-good pop-flavored show tunes of the Maltby-Shire variety to an embarrassing rap rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”

The Book of Merman is produced by Flying Elephant Productions, whose artistic director, DC Cathro, is also the author of the show’s book and the director of this inoffensive little effort. The actors in the three-person cast—Nicole Frydman as Ethel, Michael Idalski as Braithwaite, and Samuel Aquilla Massey as Shumway—are talented and game. They would have benefited from working with a director who would challenge the material rather than indulge it.   v

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