“Two Mormons missionaries knock on a door…” If that sounds like the set up for a joke, you’re absolutely right. And in this case, it is a hilarious joke that spans two hours of dancing, singing, and all-around theatrical fun.
The Book of Merman is a bright and witty musical comedy with a book by Leo Schwartz and DC Cathro, with playful yet inspiring music and lyrics by Schwartz. Produced by MadKap Productions at the beautifully intimate and refined Skokie Theatre, nestled up near the border of Chicago proper, The Book of Merman plays Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through February 26. You’ll want to make sure to get tickets.
The title of the show is a play on the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In that musical, two Mormon missionaries try to take the views and gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to a remote Ugandan village. The Book of Merman, on the other hand, involves two Mormons taking their missionary message door to door when they happen to knock on the door of famed Broadway legend Ethel Merman.
The Book of Merman had a highly successful Off-Broadway run in 2014. It had another successful Off-Broadway mounting in 2018, for which the star of the Skokie production was the understudy for the role of Ethel Merman.
Indeed, Julie Peterson is a delight as the late Broadway legend. She has the look, the expressions, and the mannerisms down pat. However, Merman was always known most for her powerful voice, and that is something Peterson delivers with the ultimate gusto. You could close your eyes and think you were listening to the real thing.
The two Mormons are equally fun and engaging. Danny Ferenczi is spot-on perfect as Elder Schumway, a missionary who has two secret loves: musical theater and someone he has romantic interests in. Alex Iacobucci is Elder Braithwaite, the more traditionally minded member of the team, but he, too, has secret passions.
Ferenczi and Iacobucci are both very talented singers and dancers, playing nicely in to the energetic but not over-the-top choreography by director/choreographer Ty Perry and the exquisite music direction by Jeremy Ramey. Ramey is also the interactive pianist in Ethel Merman’s house band, flanked by percussionist Craig Buckner.
Perry is a very skilled director. He has cast the show well, guided his performers to develop strong characters, and knows how to use the stage effectively and keep the action moving at all times. Every theatrical space has its own intricacies and Perry uses the Skokie Theatre expertly.
Set designer Scott Richardson deserves credit for an ingenious backdrop to the story. The Skokie stage is deeper and taller than wide. Richardson’s set plays to these dimensions well. The mobile front door Richardson has designed takes the show to a whole new level.
Scenic artist/set decorator Barry R. Norton also deserves credit for making the set pop to life with pizzaz and style. The posters on the wall spanning Ethel Merman’s illustrious Broadway career are an example of the skill and detail Norton can bring to a show.
SKILLED PRODUCTION STAFF
From top to bottom, the production staff is excellent. Lighting designer Pat Henderson and sound designer Kevin J. Mell both have done fine work that adds to the overall package.
Costume designer Patti Halajian is an incredible talent. She has worked in costumes shops at Marriott Theatre, Drury Lane Oakbrook, and the Joffrey Ballet. She was recently named Chicago Costume Designer of the Decade by Broadway Word and Ethel Merman’s outfits in this production are a testament to why she deserves that award.
One of the running gags in The Book of Merman is Ethel’s frequent costume changes into grander and grander designer outfits. This wouldn’t be half as funny without Halajian’s gifted work with a needle and thread. Ethel Merman could very well be on her way to the Tony Awards in the outfits Halajian has put together.
The score is mostly original songs by Schwartz, but does include a few standards. The utterly original take on a Gilbert and Sullivan classic is so fresh and well performed, I hesitate to describe the spectacular for fear of ruining the surprise. Rest assured; it alone is worth the price of admission.
The original songs are very strong. Schwartz is a gifted lyricist and an impeccable composer. He is a previous winner of the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Work for Under the Rainbow Sky. His songs for The Book of Merman are often absolutely hilarious. However, the show has a soul and a message beyond just humor, and Schwartz brilliantly provides the fodder for those emotional moments as well.
Producer Wendy Kaplan and associate producer Wayne Mell consistently move MadKap Productions and the Skokie Theatre to higher and higher quality productions. The Book of Merman definitely counts as one of their best shows to date.
The Skokie Theatre is located at 7924 Lincoln Avenue in downtown Skokie. There are ample free parking options available.
The Book of Merman plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM through February 26. There is also a special matinee on Wednesday, February 15 at 1:30 PM. For tickets call the box office at (847) 677-7761 or visit www.SkokieTheatre.org.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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