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A tuneful, original smart, funny, warm new musical comedy about childhood, parents, Broadway and Ethel Merman. Who could ask for anything more?
Original Cast Recording (Birdland Concert Performance) with All Star Cast!
A new traditional 'Big Broadway' sound.
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It's possible because composer David Evans and lyricist/book writer Stephen Cole want her that way. This is not Ethel-the-quipster or Ethel-the-indomidable. This is a private Ethel, a mother who talks to her dead daughter's ashes, who lives with her parents and who is thrilled that a young girl wants to be a Broadway performer. As for the girl, she's plucky and spirited, but her mother is dead. But it's not a tragedy either. It's a warm, engrossing Valentine of a musical on multiple levels.
Musical comedy demands a love plot, and the one here is simple and divine. There is no cynical boy meets girl scenario. It's the kind of love that fuels a piece like "Annie" or "Mame." It's parent-child love, 100% pure and 100% winning.
The star in question is Ethel Merman and the girl is Muriel Plankenstein. It's 1970 and Ethel Merman is about to become the final Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" But only for three months because she's done with long runs. Producer David Merrick wants her to stay longer and come up with a daffy cockamamie scheme as giddy and porous as any hatched in Merman musicals like "Something For the Boys" or "Anything Goes" or "Panama Hattie" or "Happy Hunting." Merrick, a proud real-life villain to those who tussled with him, pushes a button that guarantees Merman-the-peacock will change her mind. He gives Ethel her three months and then announces that Muriel, to whom Ethel has become very attached, will take over with the first all-child cast of "Hello, Dolly!" and be personally trained by Merman. It's a sham, he's simply baiting Merman-the-superstar and her giant ego. Unfortunately for him, that Merman. He can't beat Merman-the-friend and ultimately even he is pulled into the joyous mutual admiration society that includes in every other character in the show.
"Merman's Apprentice" is about theater, but it's also not about theater, and the authors are so clever in how they construct and balance their material. Ethel isn't too salty and Muriel isn't too sweet. During a "Dolly" rehearsal to which Ethel has brought Muriel, they sing "Chums," a song "cut" from a Merman show, a song to which Muriel knows all the lyrics so that when they finish, their bond is officially cemented. Those familiar with Merman's career know "Let's Be Buddies" and "Friendship" and "You're the Top," so "Chums" is a neat in joke as well. The spoof is loving, a tiny gift to Mermanites, but most of all, it's an establishing love song, one with a whiff of pastiche, but only as a bonus. There is no need to ape material here. Evans and Cole coast on their own excellence. Porter, Styne, Sondheim and the Gershwins would be calling out praise rather than calling out their lawyers.
There is ample proof to back up that assertion. The show has two eleven o'clock stunners. One is for Muriel, exhausted from all the training and rehearsing called "I Miss Canarsie." No joke there, Muriel just wants to be home with her friends and her dad and her routine life. Elizabeth Teeter, so wonderfully confident as Muriel, performs it with lacy longing.
The second is for Ethel. When she sees how she has contributed to a rushing of Muriel's life (not intentionally), she sings "Taking the Veil" to Muriel. It's a beautiful song, potent in its reflectiveness and honest in its sentiment. It's a full-fledged character number with many complexities, but though the lyrics are showbiz-specific, the theme is universal. It's performed Klea Blackhurst, a longtime Merman devotee, but also a terrific actress in her own right.
Most importantly, it's not a jaw-dropping eleven o'clock number, not a big blast goodbye. It's a summation of what has been there all along, inevitable, just waiting to be officially pronounced. Ethel does not want to create another Merman, she wants to nurture a fragile teen, to help the kid find the path that will make her happiest. It's certainly there in "All About Ethel," where, over a small dinner, an encouraging Merman is charmed by Muriel knowledge of her cannon. It's there again in "Loud" when Merman's parents proudly tell Muriel just how normal Merman is (P.J. Benjamin and the utterly ageless Anita Gillette turn it into a rollicking showstopper and it is a very funny song). It's certainly there when Merman sings a touching ballad called "Little Bit" to the daughter taken from her too young. It's there and almost completely spelled out when Ethel sings to Muriel's father that everyone has control over their decisions as long as they "Listen to the Trumpet Call." That song, all brass and swing (another purposely evocative number, but turned inside out to be used as a plot number rather than a just-for-fun piece of friskiness), finds Cole wrapping up each rhyme in rapid razzmatazz, but it also contains a nugget that jumped out at me the first time I heard it. Ethel, insisting that everyone must follow the trumpet call, admits "what it means I have no clue." Isn't that great? The lesson is to follow the trumpet rather than saying what the trumpet is supposed to mean. Merman followed her heart and instincts and wants the same for Muriel, be it show business or school in Canarsie.
"Taking the Veil" may seem an odd sentiment from Merman (whose closest brush with a habit was her reaction upon losing a Tony to Mary Martin's Maria Von Trapp: "you can't buck a nun"). Evans' music starts in the middle of a sentence and sweeps in unobtrusively to match the purposely downplayed lyric. "Taking the Veil" is merely a handy phrase for Merman, something people used to say, something ordinary. Just like her life, which includes making dinner and spending her day off catching up on the mail.
When Muriel protests that the glamour must be rewarding, the song lurches into a spitting anthem, rumination knocked to the floor by bitterness. Merman rails at stage door fans, bleeding pens, being pushed to perform while ill because with a standby "the grosses go down." "If you're a hit, then you're a slave and that's it" the world-weary star tells her protege, a seemingly blunt punch, but actually just bluster, she is reviewing options Muriel might not know of. The song eventually returns to its lovely lesson and Merman warns Muriel that it's, "the world that you covet, so you better love it." She does and by now Muriel does (though not blindly) the song evaporates out with a light orchestral slide. It's yet another instance of the authors knowing what the audience expects and then not giving it to them (to paraphrase a non-Merman line from "Gypsy"). Doesn't everyone want "Rose's Turn," that bubbling fire that turns scorching and ends with an emotional whipping? Not if you have been paying attention to "Merman's Apprentice," which owes little to "Gypsy" other than the logo. Merman-as-Rose is another character not in this musical. This Merman can build to a climactic rush, but only because she can step back from it with the gentleness of a hug.
It's no surprise that Blackhurst sails through "Merman's Apprentice" with great humor, great voice and great respect for the character she's playing, but the Merman of "Merman's Apprentice" is not the Merman from a spoof or an homage. Merman here is a full-bodied three-dimensional character and that's how Blackurst plays it. The surprise is Teeter. I can honestly say I have hated 95% of the child performers I've ever seen in a show. They either suffer from a bad case of the cutes or they are spitting out dialogue they cannot possibly understand (and which shouldn't be theirs in the first place), but casting a girl of 13 who comes from showbiz roots and who is playing a version of Cole's own history with Merman really works. If Muriel were younger, it wouldn't be believable that she took the subway by herself, let alone knowing both of Merman's 1939 musicals. If she were older, we couldn't help but think of her as manipulative. No, 13 seems the right age, one foot in the past, the other in the future and Teeter understands exactly what is required of her. Her voice can holds its own next to Blackhurst's, no small achievement. Bill Nolte's David Merrick is a cliche silent film movie villain. The only person who might have a problem with that is David Merrick, who would have insisted on more evil and a blacker soul (and a percentage of the grosses, no doubt). "Merman's Apprentice" is too well-constructed to let the bad guy win or even dominate, but the plot requires someone to represent venality. It is the world of Broadway after all, so the villain is going to be either a cagey producer or a foul-tempered newspaper gossip (Muriel is from Queens, which removes the only other possibility, narrow minded red staters who want their daughter to be a linebacker, not a kickliner). Note gets some choice lyrics, the one about Hal Prince copying his all-child cast for "Fiddler" is a hoot. It's great having Ben(jamin) and Gillette zooming in now and then for some well-deserved laughs.
Sorry, I went on too long, but this is a new musical that deserves a life. That explains the cast album, always a great hook, especially with a score this adept, tuneful and enjoyable. When that hook is as good as it is in "Merman's Apprentice," it's a pleasure to be wrapped up in its fun loving innocence.
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As always... OUTSTANDING!