The Book of Merman Review - Catchy, Clever, and Poignant

After seeing The Book of Merman, I am going to have to rethink my previous stance on caftans.  A timeless Ethel Merman made me a believer.  You, too, can weigh in on this topic if you choose to go see the new production of The Book of Merman, now playing at the Apollo Studio Theatre in Chicago.  And I urge you to go see Ethel and the Mormon boys who ring her doorbell, especially if you need to laugh, tear up, and belt out There’s No Business Like Show Business like you mean it.  I’m still humming the catchy tunes and wondering if I can find frilly bloomers to go with my flowing flowery robe.

Dan Gold, Sam Button-Harrison, and Libby Lane in The Book of Merman


Pride Films & Plays presents The Book of Merman, written by Leo Schwartz and directed by David Zak, who also serves as the company’s executive director.  The cast is small – Sam Button-Harrison plays Aaron and Dan Gold plays Jacob, the two Mormon men out on their two year mission to bring folks to Jesus Christ.  Libby Lane brilliantly inhabits the soul of Ethel Merman, who despite having died in 1984 somehow lives in the town where Dan and Aaron are performing their godly duties.  Dan and Aaron, originally from Salt Lake City, dodge their competitors, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and ring doorbells, using their love for their religion and God to try to persuade folks to listen to their message.  On this day, they land on Ethel Merman’s doorstep.  Ethel is on her way out to get her driver’s license renewed, but she is captivated by the two young men and says she’ll be happy to purchase magazines from them (they aren’t selling any).  Aaron, a closeted worshipper of all things Merman, proclaims how much he would like to be on stage to the frustration of his partner Jacob, who has a single-minded desire to fulfill his mission of spreading the word.  

Sam Button- Harrison and Dan Gold in The Book of Merman

(L to R) Dan Gold and Sam Button-Harrison, Dan Gold in The Book of Merman

Through Schwartz’s clever lyrics and snappy songs and musical theatre-style dance numbers (Sarah Goldberg, choreographer), Aaron and Jacob come to terms with themselves and their lives, while Ethel remains true to herself and her love of the limelight.   I rooted for their happily-ever-afters even while I wanted to get up there and belt out a tune like the immortal Ethel.   In addition to the amazing Lane as Ethel Merman, I was drawn in by Button-Harrison’s Aaron, who was fulfilling his duty on his mission, but who clearly wanted something different from life, and Gold, whose portrait of the strident and committed Jacob broke my heart and cracked me up in equal measures.  All three actors delivered the goods with the quick-moving lyrics and score.  I might have a missed a few good lines here and there because there was so much to listen to and digest, but overall, the performances were spot on.

(L to R) Dan Gold, Sam Button-Harrison, and Libby Lane in The Book of Merman


The Apollo Studio Theater is teeny-tiny – the stage is smaller than my family room and the audience numbered around 50.  This production was perfect for the space.  With only three actors, plus the excellent pianist on stage, Justin Harner, the venue was perfect for an intimate and interactive experience.  The scene props and background were kept to a minimum, which allowed the audient to concentrate on the performance.  The actors, especially the outrageous Ms. Merman, encouraged audience participation and we gladly went along for the ride.

(L to R) Dan Gold, Libby Lane, and Sam Button-Harrison in The Book of Merman

I had one puzzling item that I bring up here, only because I obsessed over it during the production, but others probably didn’t notice.  In the first act, Ethel comes out with her checkbook to buy magazines, and at one point hands the checkbook to Aaron.  Aaron places the checkbook into his satchel, but never returns it to her.  I kept wondering if that was going to come up later but it never did.  Hopefully Ethel can still make her car payments!


The Book of Merman is playing through April 5th at the Apollo Studio Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL.  Their phone number is 773.935.6100 and check out the Pride Films & Plays here.


Don your caftans and check in with Ethel and the boys for an outstanding evening!

Photographs Courtesy of Alex Ray Meyers.

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