Monday, November 30, 2015

The Book of Merman—Triangle Productions!—NE Portland

Live Your Dreams!

This musical comedy has book, lyrics and music by Leo Swartz and is directed by Donald I. Horn, with musical direction by Jonathan Quesenberry.  It is playing at their space, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd. (free parking is available next to their building), through December 19th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-239-5919.

Mormons have been getting a lot of press lately, with the popular Book of Mormon on Broadway, and old stars like Tallulah, Maria Callas and now, Merman, getting reenergized by Triangle.  Put the seemingly two opposing forces together and you get the above mentioned musical.  I say “seemingly” because they may not be so far apart after all.

Merman was a force of nature and commanded attention.  So do the Mormons.  Merman strove hell-bent-for-leather to accomplish her goals.  Same with the Mormons (although, for them, it was probably “heck” bent for leather).  Merman was single-minded in her goal to be center stage.  Ditto the Mormons.  And Merman, oft laughed at and imitated, stuck to her guns and lived her dream.  Also, the Mormons.  So opposing forces may not be so opposite after all.  And, thereby, we have this fable.

The story is slight and may only be there as an excuse to let Merman’s legend shine.  But the Mormons hold their own and, in the end, they come to an agreeable compromise (something politicians can’t seem to do).  Probably everybody knows that one of the missions of the Mormon faith is to go into unknown territory, whether door-to-door in a neighborhood or a foreign country, to spread the Word of God.  In this case, the pervading prophets of the piece are the petulant, Elder Shumway (Collin Carver), and, the more devout, Elder Braithwaite (Will Shindler).

They seem to have a difference of opinion as to how the Gospel is to be spread and what their roles are.  Shumway is a closet thespian and reads bios of stars during classes.  Braithwaite has had a personal loss in his family and seems buried in his faith to find solace.  On their separate searches for meaning, they happen on the house of the bold, brassy, belting, Ethel Merman (Amy Jo Halliday).  She, assuming they are there to sell magazines or looking for cash donations, is very accommodating.  But Fate has a different lot in store for this intrepid trio.

Now we come to the heart of the story, as music is the way to calm the “savage beast” within and “catch the conscience of the [team].”  They question their own morality in “Son of a Motherless Goat” (very funny by the boys); duel with each other as to who has the upper hand in “Better Than You” (a showstopper); pump each other up in “You’re the Best” (a treat for the ears); learn that we all have a little Merman in us, “Be a Merman”; and, finally, secrets are revealed in, “Because of You” (touching).  There are about fifteen songs in all and all add a part to the story.

Horn, as always, has shows that not only entertain, but teach us as well.  He understands actors and has specific avenues he traverses with them to pull out every nuance of the character.  And his long-time music collaborator, Quesenberry, is always an asset to a production.  Also the lighting (Shelley Hutchinson) is very subtle but does create mood and focus when necessary for the plot.  She is one of those backstage, unsung heroes which every production has.

Carver and Shindler are terrific.  Carver as the rebel of the two, really does convince you of his struggle, so that you can identify the conflict within each of us, as Frost said, “two roads diverged…” and sorry I could not take both paths.  I think we’ve all been there.  And Carver’s voice and expressions are priceless!  Shindler is equally good as the more subdued soldier of God but equally, quietly conflicted.  His ballad near the end is lovely.  These two are perfect in their roles.

And Halliday is a gem.  The role fits her likes a glove and her operatic style makes “everything come up Merman.”  She plays it for laughs but you can see the human being beneath the bravado, a tribute to her acting, as well as singing.  Also, this type of character and her talent could easily overpower the boys but she is a genuine professional, taking the stage when it makes sense and allowing the others to shine when they should.  Halliday, I salute you!

I recommend this production.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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