Oct 1, 2019
by Jeanie K. Smith , San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
Nurturing a new musical is hard work, placing unusual demands on performers and production team as changes to script and blocking can happen nightly right up to opening— but it’s also thrilling to see the challenge pay off in audience reception and joyful applause. Sonoma Arts Live does themselves proud with this latest venture, pulling out all the stops with a strong cast and excellent production values for the premiere of a brand new musical right in our own region.
Merman’s Apprentice, the brain-child of Stephen Cole andDavid Evans, has enjoyed sold-out concert readings elsewhere, including New York City, but this is the first full staging with all the trimmings. Both Cole and Evans (who currently staffs the podium forWicked on Broadway) joined the team for a week of rehearsals, making changes and adding to the challenge and excitement.
It’s a charming tale told in classic Broadway-style, of a young girl’s dream of Broadway stardom and the star who turns the dream into reality. Teenager Muriel Plakenstein (delightfulEmma Sutherland) runs away from home to NYC, only to run right into her favorite star of all, famous and fabled Ethel Merman (the brilliantly talented Dani Innocenti Beem). Merman takes a liking to the girl who knows everything about her career, and when she discovers the girl has a terrific voice, Merman concocts an improbable scheme for launching a new star.
Parts hokum and fantasy, with real bits of Merman’s life and history thrown in, the musical progresses rather predictably, with producer David Merrick (Patrick Barr) cast as the relatively benign villain whose backstage machinations must be overcome to ensure Muriel’s success. Slightly corny but still engaging, the musical overall feels like a step back in time to the classic musicals of Merman’s heyday, which also makes it suitable for all ages. Don’t worry about Merman’s notorious vulgarity— none of that here— just a sweet story with catchy tunes, gentle humor and the requisite happy finale.
Stephen Cole was friends with Merman in the later years of her life, and his portrayal of her larger-than-life personality and her artistic world give us a rare glimpse of the real woman behind the fame, part homage and part biography. If all you know of Merman are her TV appearances as she neared the end of her career, this show may amend any misconceptions about her rare talent and her decidedly significant contribution to performance.
Merman’s friend Goldie (JT Soares) and her parents (Julia Holsworth and Sean O’Brien) figure large in the plot, along with the parental interference of Moe Plakenstein (George Bereschick). They're supported by a small and amply talented ensemble who play multiple roles and dance up a storm. The show, however, is truly a vehicle for the two singing sensations, and Beem and Sutherland anchor the piece with knockout vocals and big stage presence.
Co-directors Jaime Weiser Love and Larry Williams have managed the big job of shepherding a new musical with great success, especially in casting. Music directorSherrill Peterson gets a professional, full sound from the small band, and presumably coached those wonderful vocals as well.
Choreography by Lissa Ferreira is just enough and nicely in keeping with the overall concept. Janis Snyder gives a nod to 1970s style and color, but the black outfits of the ensemble tend to make them disappear against the dark set. The deceptively simple scenic design byGary Gonser evokes the NYC skyline, Broadway neon, and multiple locations with minimal set pieces cleverly built for quick scene changes. Sound design byTom Luekens nicely balances band and performers, and lighting by Courtney Johnson captures all those different locales with ease.
If you’re a lover of musicals you owe it to yourself to see this one now, while it’s still in Sonoma. Beem and Sutherland’s performances are that memorable, you’ll be bragging for months about your good fortune.
Book & Lyrics by Stephen Cole, Music byDavid Evans
Presented by Sonoma Arts Live through October 13, 2019
Thu/Fri/Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2:00pm
Photos by Miller Oberlin
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