Missionaries have close encounter of the Merman kind

By Richard Ades

The Book of Merman is to The Book of Mormon what a Pekingese is to a bulldog: It’s smaller, fluffier and far less funny.

To be fair, The Book of Merman isn’t entirely fluffy, as it does have a message about being true to oneself. But you’ll see that coming so far in advance that it doesn’t have much impact.

Written by Leo Schwartz, the musical starts out with a clever premise. It’s about a pair of Mormon missionaries who come face to face with a woman who claims to be someone she clearly isn’t. Or is she?

We first meet Elders Shumway and Braithwaite (Nick Hardin and T. Johnpaul Adams) as they’re bickering their way from one suburban doorbell to the next while trying to avoid their territorial rivals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The bickering stems from the fact that Braithwaite is far more into their two-year mission than Shumway, who seems so averse to all things Mormon that he can’t even stand Salt Lake City.

Then they end up at the door of a woman who calls herself Ethel Merman (Gina Handy). Shumway, a fan of Broadway in general and Merman in particular, is overcome with joy. He immediately believes she’s who she says she is, even though the real Ethel Merman reportedly died in 1984. In no time, he’s chatting with her about his own dreams of becoming a Broadway composer and star.

For his part, Braithwaite doesn’t even know who Merman was—or is. He just wants to give this odd woman the word of Mormon so they can get on with their mission.

Working under Bryan Adam’s direction and Bryan Babcock’s musical direction, all three cast members give likable and tuneful performances.

Hardin is particularly convincing as the stage-struck Shumway, while Adams, by a slight margin, exhibits the most commanding voice. As Merman, Handy isn’t always as big and brassy as she could be, especially when she’s speaking. But when she really lays into a song, her Merman impersonation is nearly impeccable.

The songs themselves are sometimes takeoffs on Broadway tunes that became Merman standards. For example, Most People fills in for Some People from Gypsy, while You’re the Best replaces You’re the Top from Anything Goes. These are OK, but they suffer from comparison to the hits that inspired them.

Some of the Schwartz’s original songs are more entertaining, especially the Act 2 tribute Because of You, beautifully sung by Adams. Babcock’s spirited piano provides the musical accompaniment.

In between the songs, and even during one of them (Son of a Motherless Goat), the humor often pokes fun at the Mormons’ squeaky-clean ways, such as their refusal to curse. These jokes quickly suffer from diminishing returns.

More impressive than the script is the set on which it’s performed. Director Adam’s scenic design, showing Merman’s living room, is far more detailed than anything we’re used to seeing in the Columbus Performing Arts Center’s cozy Van Fleet Theatre.

With a handsome set, an endearing cast and a timeless moral, The Book of Merman adds up to a harmless diversion. If you want more than that, you’ll have to hold out for The Book of Mormon.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Book of Merman through July 30 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (no show July 27). Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 seniors, $15 students. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

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Show offers stripped-down, bloodied-up Sondheim

Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only's production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)
Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only’s production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)

By Richard Ades

If Columbus barbers have noticed a drop in business recently, it could be because the local theater scene is offering not one, but two productions of the bloodthirsty musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Those whose taste tends toward the grandiose might want to check out the Ohio State version being presented this weekend at Mershon Auditorium. Those who favor more intimate productions might prefer the Standing Room Only production whose two-week run ends Sunday.

I’ve seen the latter, and I can recommend it with one caveat: The unamplified lyrics are sometimes hard to pick out over the accompaniment. That annoyance aside, the production does right by this darkest of musicals, which features a book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

In fact, it does brilliantly by the musical, thanks to a well-chosen cast and Patrick McGregor II’s ingenious direction.

This is a “black box” production twice over. Not only is the scenery limited to a black backdrop and little more, but the main prop is a black, coffin-shaped box that is continually being moved and upended to serve a multitude of functions. This minimalistic approach might be distracting if McGregor’s cast weren’t so mesmerizing.

Following his starring role in Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables, Bill Hafner again excels playing a 19th century man who’s suffered years of unjust imprisonment. But don’t expect to find much in common between the two portrayals.

Unlike the noble Jean Valjean, Sweeney Todd has vengeance on his mind—vengeance against the judge who sent him away in order to pursue his wife. The former barber’s fury intensifies when he returns to London only to learn that his wife is dead and his daughter has been adopted by that same judge. As portrayed by Hafner, Todd is so overcome by grief and anger that he stumbles around in a state of near catatonia.

In effective contrast, Susan Bunsold Wilson radiates manic energy as Mrs. Lovett, the widowed baker who ultimately becomes Todd’s partner in crime. As amoral as she is personable, Mrs. Lovett quickly finds a way to benefit when the deranged barber’s “shaves” start turning into homicides. It’s no coincidence that her meat pies soon become the talk of the neighborhood.

Both Hafner and Wilson display strong voices on numbers such as their duets By the Sea and the darkly humorous A Little Priest, in which Todd and Mrs. Lovett discuss the optimum ingredients for a tasty pie.

As the dastardly Judge Turpin, Todd Lemmon offers an understated version of villainy that disguises itself under a cloak of piety. Turpin and Hafner join their voices to great effect on Pretty Women, a beautiful song that incongruously arises during a moment of impending murder. A more blatant depiction of evil is offered by Colton Weiss as Turpin’s henchman, the nasal-voiced Beadle.

The musical’s second-most beautiful song, Not While I’m Around, is given a dramatic delivery by Layne Roate as the limping, dimwitted Tobias Ragg. Appearing in other important secondary roles are Ethan White as goodhearted seaman Anthony Hope; Taryn Huffman as Todd’s grown daughter, Johanna; and Laura Crone as a beggar woman and a rival barber.

An impressively large orchestra provides the accompaniment, though music director Josh Cutting ably replaced it with his keyboard at the matinee I attended. Curtis Brown’s lighting not only establishes mood but is used to shift viewers’ focus from one side of the room to the other during quick scene changes.

Filled with dark themes and bloody violence, Sweeney Todd is unsuitable for young children. But SRO’s inventive production makes it a treat for those who appreciate Sondheim’s lovely tunes and graceful lyrics even when they’re sung in the midst of a murder spree.

Standing Room Only Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Remaining show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $12-$21 Saturday, $12-$16 Sunday. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.

The Ohio State School of Music, Opera and Lyric Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at Mershon Auditorium, 1879 N. High St., Columbus. Remaining show times are 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, $10 for senior citizens, students, children and OSU faculty, staff and alumni association members. Show isn’t suitable for ages 12 and under. 614-292-3535 or music.osu.edu.

Welcome to the world where gay is the new straight

ZannaBy Richard Ades

Sean Felder seems a bit miscast as Steve, the football star in Zanna, Don’t! He sings and acts just fine, but the gridiron doesn’t usually attract guys with such a slight build.

Then again, there’s nothing usual about the world portrayed in Tim Acito’s “musical fairy tale.” It’s set at Heartsville High School, where being gay is the norm and being hetero is so unheard of that the head of the drama club is scandalized when a member suggests doing a musical about straight people.

Just as unconventional is the students’ attitude toward extracurricular activities. Though Steve is such a talented jock that he wins a game by actually passing the ball to himself, the school’s biggest celebrity is chess champion Mike (Ricky Locci). But the real key to popularity, as new student Steve recognizes, is joining the drama club.

Obviously, this is the school many a gay student has dreamed of attending. As written and scored by Acito (with help from Alexander Dinelaris), Zanna, Don’t! brings the dream to fizzy, tuneful life.

In Evolution Theatre’s production, director Brent Ries captures the piece’s mood with the help of Shane Cinal’s imaginative set, Danielle Mann’s playful choreography, music director Tim Sarsany’s well-heeled band and, most importantly, a lovable cast.

In the center of it all is William Macke as the title character, a wand-carrying, spell-casting student whose only desire is to hook up everyone with his or her same-sex soulmate. Indeed, Zanna devotes so much time to others’ happiness that he neglects his own. His sole friend is Cindy, an exotic bird portrayed by puppeteer Mike Writtenberry.

Even when trouble rears its head, Zanna does his best to keep romance alive. After Roberta (Tahrea Maynard) learns that girlfriend Karla (Alex Lanier) has been unfaithful, Zanna immediately points her toward Kate (Jordan Shafer). In general, everything is sweetness and light until a girl and boy come to the reluctant realization that they’re attracted to each other. The resulting controversy threatens the school’s loving atmosphere, forcing Zanna to respond with a spell that has unforeseen consequences.

Also in the cast are Laura Crone as the bossy Candi, Brian C. Gray as the put-upon Arvin and T. Johnpaul Adams as radio deejay Tank.

Everyone does a good or better-than-good job on the show’s songs, which represent vintage pop-rock and other lighthearted genres. Though the actors don’t appear to be miked, most put out enough volume to be heard over the carefully modulated band. That’s not to say the show wouldn’t benefit from more amplification, which would add to the fun quotient, but it functions just fine without it.

Despite its satirical, upside-down view of reality, Zanna, Don’t! mostly serves up frothy fantasy. As a theatrical work, it’s about as slight as the build of Heartsville High’s star football player, but its tunefulness and charm make it a modestly pleasant diversion.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Zanna, Don’t! through Nov. 21 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors, $30 for “generosity seating” (second or third row center). 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.