One of Broadway’s most legendary performers comes face-to-face with two of Broadway’s most current residents in Pittsburgh CLO’s production of The Book of Merman. A hilarious heartfelt musical about being true to oneself, the show is a comedic romp through some of Ethel Merman’s most recognized works. Directed by Joe Langworth, this campy musical inspires audiences to embrace their inner Merman by letting that diva shine center stage.
The show follows two Mormon missionaries, Elder Braithewaite and Elder Shumway, as they go door-to-door hoping to convert the masses to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. After an unsuccessful day of canvassing the neighborhood, they land on the doorstep of THE Ethel Merman. After meeting the musical theater icon, they are soon taken on a journey of self-discovery and show tunes.
The Book of Merman runs at The Greer Cabaret Theater in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. A small, but intimate theater that allows for audiences to be up close to the action while being able to treat themselves to some light appetizers, drinks, and desserts.
The stage is set to look like Merman’s living room, and has the feel it could’ve been taken right out of a show like I Love Lucy. It’s classic, elegant, and is decorated with all the costumes, props, makeup, and accessories you would expect the diva herself to own. It was fun to take in all the detail Scenic Designer, Tony Ferrieri put into the set. I especially loved the pink front door signed with Merman’s own initials.
I found the lighting of the show, designed by Nicole White, to be quite impressive. There are a few gags and bits in the production that rely on the lighting, and I would imagine it to be quite challenging to make sure everything is synched up correctly or hit at exactly at the right time to make the moment work. Outside of that, I found the lighting was used well to accentuate the numbers, scenes, and the characters’ solo moments musical or otherwise.
The Book of Merman has a strong trio of actors at the helm of the production. Not only do their voices blend beautifully together, they work well off of one another, and have impeccable comedic timing. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Quinn Patrick Shannon, who plays Elder Shumway, in Pittsburgh Public’s 2016 production of Guys & Dolls. He completely stole the show as Nicely Nicely Johnson, so I wasn’t surprised to see him do the same in this production. His vocals are impressive, and he delivers a solid performance as well. I found Shannon to be funny and charming, and felt he was able to bring more to the character than just laughs.
Jerreme Rodriguez plays the perfect straight laced, no nonsense, dutiful Mormon boy Elder Braithewaite. What I found impressive about Rodriguez was his ability to catch you off guard with his comedic delivery. He has a small moment in the song, “Better Than You,” that was completely unexpected, and was one of the bigger laughs of the night. While no one could ever fill the shoes of the legendary Ethel Merman, Christine Laitta sure does come close. She nails Merman’s famous voice, and manages to bring her own charm to the iconic actress. She shines in solo moments like, “When They Come Back,” and, “A Little Bit of Me.” Laitta knows she has the best role in the show, and enjoys hamming it up any chance she gets.
The show provides audiences with everything from parodies of famous Broadway songs to laugh of loud unique musical numbers. Most of the musical numbers in the show are parodies of songs made famous by Ethel Merman. For example, “You’re The Best” is a parody of the Cole Porter number “You’re The Top” from Anything Goes, and “Better Than You” is a parody of “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun. This added an extra layer of hilarity to the show and was fun to pinpoint what song they were parodying. Towards the end of the show there’s also a scene where a Gilbert & Sullivan song turns into a big rap number, which was absolutely hysterical and my favorite moment of the show. I found the musical numbers added to the playfulness of the show, and amped up the campiness of it all.
The Book of Merman is a lighthearted show that at its core is about accepting yourself, staying true to your heart, and sticking to your convictions. It’s filled with enormous laughs and show stopping musical numbers, and has a cast of truly unforgettable characters. The Book of Merman is unexpectedly fun and heartwarming, and a must see for any fans of either Merman herself or The Book of Mormon. So if you ever wondered what would happen if Elder Price and Elder Cunningham were sent to Ethel Merman’s house instead of Uganda, you can find out firsthand at Pittsburgh CLO’s The Book of Merman.
The Book of Merman runs through March 8 at The Greer Cabaret Theater.
Photography Credit: Matt Polk
Jade Goodes is a graduate of Penn State University where she received her degree in English. While attending Penn State she became the Managing Editor for the school’s literary & arts magazine, Absence. Jade has been involved with the Pittsburgh theater community since elementary school, and has performed in many productions over the years. In her free time she enjoys reading and attending all the concerts she can.
Categories: Archived Reviews