By John Lyle Belden
The Phoenix Theatre – 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, near Mass. Ave. – opens the musical “The Book of Merman” on May 12.
That’s not a typo. The title is actually “Merman,” not to be confused with a certain Tony-winning hit that recently toured through the city. But there are similarities.
Director Emily Ristine said she was told the playwright, Leo Schwartz, found where the line between gentle parody and legal trouble lies and came as close to it as possible, both with the Latter-Day Saints-inspired musical and with the songbook of Ethel Merman.
Since one can’t get in trouble just for saying “Hello” or “Everything’s coming up,” what original tune or lyrics you can attach to that is fair game. And Schwartz played the game quite well.
The plot of this musical is fairly simple: A pair of Mormon missionaries (played by Tyler Ostrander and Lincoln Slentz) ring a doorbell and the person who answers is legendary singer Ethel Merman (Jolene Mentink Moffatt)! It’s 2016, and Merman (according to the biography one “Elder” carries obsessively) died in 1984. Still, could it be the real Merman? Does it matter?
“It matters more who you think you are,” Merman says in the show.
Moffatt agrees. “I think the takeaway is, you should be who you are inside,” she said after a rehearsal, “– owning who you are inside.”
The missionaries also learn something about themselves, and their relationship to each other.
“I don’t think of it in terms of ‘straight or gay,’” Slentz said. “It’s a matter of who you love as a person.”
Ristine, an actor featured in Phoenix musicals since 2002, said she enjoys the opportunity to direct this production. She has directed many shows over 13 years as artistic director of Summer Stock Theater for local teens, but this is her first time at the helm solo for the Phoenix.
For information and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.
John L. Belden is associate editor of The Word and co-host of local theatre blog PlaysWithJohnAndWendy.com.