CLO Cabaret’s ‘Book of Merman’ is long on talent, short on substance

By February 18, 2020 No Comments

Quinn Patrick Shanon, Christine Laitta and Jerreme Rodriguez (Photo: Matt Polk)

By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic

It’s a well-known story in the Literary Biz that an editor at a boutique publishing house, after spending the day mashing together horror memes and public-domain novels, came up with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He called a writer and said he had a great title! … and it would be the writer’s job to come up with a story. The results may have driven another nail into Jane Austen’s coffin, but it made everyone else a ton of money.

I was thinking about that watching the latest production at Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret; The Book of Merman – a new musical with songs from Leo Schwartz and a book by Schwartz and DC Cathro. I have no way of knowing if any of the following is true (in fact I’d bet it isn’t) but this is the origin story I imagined.

The Book of Merman continues through March 8. CLO Cabaret, Downtown. 412/456-6666.

At a drunken cast party one night someone, perhaps having had one too many old-fashioneds, says they’ve just come from “The Book of Merman.” Everyone laughs realizing the speaker meant to say “The Book of Mormon” … and any mention of Broadway legend Ethel Merman gets a laugh no matter the context.

The laughter dies a little but someone else, possibly Schwartz or Cathro, begins to elaborate. “Wouldn’t it be funny, though, if when those two guys from Mormon ring the doorbell at the top of the show, Merman opens the door?”

More laughs all around – and an idea is born.

Like that Zombies editor: “I’ve got a great title … you come up with the story.”

And that’s the huge challenge faced by Schwartz and Cathro – whaddya do after that initial laugh?

With all due respect to talent-taking-a-risk, I would say the answer is “not a whole lot.”

The Book of Merman originated in Chicago, played off-Broadway last year and will soon start popping up at venues similar to CLO Cabaret across the country for obvious reasons; It’s 90 intermissionless minutes with three actors and one set. A producer’s dream!

Schwartz’ songs are pleasant enough with none standing out as either delightful or dreadful. What I did find interesting is that there’s really two scores here; there’s the numbers Schwartz has written for the missionaries, standard musical comedy stuff. And then there’s the songs he’s written for Merman. Since, because of royalties, the Ethel character can’t sing Merman’s trademark tunes (“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Anything Goes,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” etc.) Schwartz has written her songs sounding almost like those numbers with lyrics almost like the originals. So “Some People” from the musical Gypsy becomes “Most People” here. “You’re the Top” from Anything Goes is now “You’re the Best.” And so on. As a show-tune freak I found it kinda clever.

(But I did wonder how hard must it be to sing “You’re the Best” when you’ve also got the actual “You’re the Top” playing right beside it in your front lobe?)

Fortunately, this production, directed by Joe Langworth, features three of Pittsburgh’s best belters; Jerreme Rodriguez and Quinn Patrick Shannon as the Mormons and Christine Laitta channeling Ethel. They expend their considerable singing and dancing talents to turn each song into its own little production number. The material doesn’t offer much support, but by the time they’ve wrung out every last drop of show biz sparkle, you might not realize. Certainly, the sold-out crowd with whom I saw the show didn’t and applauded, with gusto, each number.

I can’t say the same thing when it comes to the story. Schwartz and Cathro have come up with something, sort of a “to thy own self be true” message. We’ve heard it many, many times before and it’s the tepid climax to 90 minutes of wildly improbable plot elements, clunky set pieces, hokey coincidences, and non-sensical story advancement.

When the funniest part of the night is the show title … it’s back to the drawing board.

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