Generations clash in The Book of Merman, a musical-comedy mashup of the 2011 Tony Award-sweeping musical The Book of Mormon and Broadway darling of the ’30s to ’70s Ethel Merman, of Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy fame, whom Time Out New York named in the top 25 greatest divas of all time.
While it’s purported that Merman died in 1984, in The Book of Merman, now playing at the Phoenix Theatre, two Mormon missionaries ring her present-day doorbell and hilarity ensues.
Merman was memorable for her brassy personality, but friends also described her as “vulnerable” and “childlike.” Even in her later years, every event was exciting, including the mundane ones. Jolene Mentink Moffatt captures this mixture of wonderment and cheekiness, a pairing seen not just in her character but also in the show itself. Tyler Ostrander and Lincoln Slentz shine with fresh-faced naiveté even if their songs reek of unsubtle innuendo (“If It’s Not Hard, I Don’t Like It”).
Fans of Merman and Mormon will appreciate the slips of music each is notable for that are incorporated into the show. Ostrander’s character, Elder Shumway, sees Merman as a goddess, which opens the door for Moffatt to belt out some Merman-esque tunes—and for Elder Braithwaite to do some soul searching. “She’s Ethel Merman” is a direct parody of “I Believe,” and a lively rap number uses “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance as its base.
Emily Ristine directs Moffatt, Ostrander, and Slentz in their affable characterizations with Jay Schwandt as musical director. The trio’s interactions (quartet if you include Jay) are a joy to watch. Glen Bucy’s set of a residential neighborhood is a realistic backdrop that doesn’t hog all the stage space, giving the actors room to sway and pout. Friday night’s performance had a few off notes, but the show is a crowd-pleaser with feels; no matter which generation you identify with, you’re bound to be a convert by the end.