Stephen Cole, Book Writer/Lyricist of Merman’s Apprentice was actually friends with the iconic Ethel Merman. At 20, Cole wanted to produce the 74 year-old First Lady of the American Theater in a television concert. Though the project didn’t pan out, he and Merman became friends for the last two years of her life. She often attended parties at Cole’s home, they hung out together. The author describes her response to being approached by fans on the street as “Yeah, yeah. Hi” and walking on; her modus operandi as “I did it. I gave it to them. I’m going home.”
After Merman passed, Cole wrote a short story called Merman’s Apprentice and put it in a drawer. A career in musical theater writing followed. Looking for something on which to collaborate with composer/musical director/conductor, David Evans, the author recalled his piece. Evans was in. “It’s full of tidbits garnered from when I knew her,” Cole tells me. He wanted to show his friend “…not just as a big star, but as a funny, bawdy, yet also vulnerable woman.” Cole has succeeded in spades.
It’s 1971. Muriel Plakenstein – don’t you love the name?! (Elizabeth Teeter) is reading Variety instead of doing her math. The Canarsie Junior High School student wants to be a Broadway Star, she wants, in fact, to live out loud (a cliché, but apt) like her hero, Ethel Merman. Though father, Moe (a sincere Adam Heller) does the best he can, the house has been quiet since the girl’s mother died.
Muriel runs away to Broadway emerging from the subway beneath, wouldn’t you know it?, a marquee for Ethel Merman in Hello, Dolly! Autograph seekers have gathered. Her chins may all sag/she may look like a truck driver in drag/but she’s a Broadway star!
The diva herself appears (Klea Blackhurst as Merman) with her longtime pianist/pal Goldie in tow. (Brian Charles Rooney-just the right tone.) “Are you really her, the greatest Broadway star that ever was?!” blurts the pint sized ingénue. Impressing Merman with her enthusiasm and biographical knowledge, Muriel is asked to lunch. We know it’s Sardi’s because of a reference to “Vincent” and ordering from the actor’s menu. “Have you ever seen the movie All About Eve? Merman archly inquires. “I don’t know all about Eve, but I do know `All About Ethel,'” her guest replies in song. (Teeter’s last octave-sliding “kno-o-oh” is bulls-eye vocal Merman.)
Effectively embellishing a pastiche plot with amusing insider references, the fantasy itself manages to arrive fresh. Names may have changed, but out sized ambitions remain universal. It’s clear Stephen Cole is familiar with Merman, David Merrick, backstage, and theater history. Though personification of the infamous producer might be more gleefully underhanded, depiction of the vocalist feels balanced and credible.
Numbers with lyric specificity shine. (“I Miss Canarsie” lands too general in comparison.) Music is appealing and often Mermanesque. Arrangements are terrific. Minimal direction is charming. Well placed interjections and “cracks” ring genuine and are well placed. “Join me, Ethel?” Merrick says breaking into a dance. “Why, are you coming apart?” she retorts. (The winning Teeter/Blackhurst duet of “Chums” which is said to be from Cole Porter’s Panama Hattie, is, in fact, authored by Cole and Evens.) “Om feelin’ generous today kid, so you take the high note.”
Will Muriel stay or return to hearth and school? There is, of course no question. Show Business, is “Better Than Life.” Merman takes on the uber-talented girl, but not before bonding with her questioning father. What little dialogue we hear is both warm and clever.
The star leaves her protégé with parents mom and pop Zimmerman – Merman’s real last name – (Anita Gillette and Fred Applegate) for private conversation with Moe. Neither Zimmerman talks above audible stage whisper. Though Ethel is their beloved daughter, they admit in song she’s “ LOUD”: So I put some more gin in my lemonade/And I turn down my hearing aid…A really cute number performed with skillful, low key, comic delivery by a couple of well chosen actors.
Merrick (Bill Nolte) wants Merman to stay in Dolly so he can break records for the longest running show on Broadway, but she famously prefers a three month run. How can he trick her into extending the contract? Plans A through D are revealed in a two-hander by Nolte and Eddie Korbach as Marvin Blackstone. One of these ideas includes starring Muriel in an all kid production of the Jerry Herman musical. Or is that just a ploy? Merrick works the girl extra hard. Merman, unconsciously making her a surrogate daughter (replacing one she lost to unmentioned drugs), takes Muriel out on the town every night. Can this last?
Theater and Cabaret veteran Klea Blackhurst is the perfect Ethel Merman. Not only has she similar power, texture and range, but the lady can both wisecrack with the best and act. “Little Bit,” a ballad about Merman’s daughter (her nickname) is as effective as custom-tailored material like “Listen To the Trumpet Call.” During the title duet, Blackhurst teases her hair and shares such secrets as “melting mascara and beading it on with a safety pin” with naturally engaging aplomb. Her Merman is manifest as written – maternal, pragmatic, honest, and naturally funny as well as brassy.
Elizabeth Teeter (Muriel) is a revelation. With last year’s role in The Audience and one in the upcoming production of The Crucible, one would never have known she has a wowza voice. Teeter keeps Muriel from becoming one of those slickly precocious adolescent talents who inappropriately seem like midget adults. She’s just the right proportion of youthful, sympathetic, spirited, and attentive. Watch this comet rise.
Blackhurst and Teeter work beautifully together theatrically and vocally. One hopes they both have the opportunity to go forward with the piece. And that the thoroughly entertaining musical continues to a broader audience.
The capable Ensemble includes: Desi Oakley, F. Michael Haynie, Sarah Sesler, and Michael McCorry Rose.
Caveats: Implying the Internet replaced interest in Broadway (in opening narration which may exist or may be here in order to tell us where we are in this book performance) is simply odd. Even the word Internet is jarring in this eloquently period piece. I found myself recoiling at several awkward references to being Jewish including Merrick’s I’m a fighter through and through/And though my name is Anglicized, I’m a Jew which felt uncomfortable and unnecessary.
Merman’s Apprentice has had workshops, readings, and a previous concert performance at Birdland, June 2015. This second outing coincides with the release of a well produced CD of that show to which I happily listen as I polish this. Cole and Evans are in talks with several theaters for a potential full production.
Photos: Opening: Fred Applegate, Anita Gillette, Adam Heller, Klea Blackhurst, Elizabeth Teeter, Bill Nolte, Brian Charles Rooney by Maryann Lopinto
- Elizabeth Teeter by Kevin Alvey
- Klea Blackhurst, Elizabeth Teeter, & Bill Nolte by Kevin Alvey
- Elizabeth Teeter & Adam Heller by Maryann Lopinto
- Anita Gillette & Fred Applegate by Maryann Lopinto
- Elizabeth Teeter & Klea Blackhurst by Kevin Alvey
- Klea Blackhurst by Kevin Alvey
Stephen Cole- Book & Lyrics
Lawrence Yurman-Musical Direction; Lynne Shankel-Orchestrations
Directed by Stephen Cole & Amy Burgess
Broadway At Birdland January 18, 2016
for the CD: https://www.amazon.com/Mermans-Apprentice-Original-Cast/dp/B01AK5WUCK