REVIEW: Merman’s Apprentice – Original Cast Recording

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054871If you’ve ever uttered the phrase “they don’t make ’em like they used to anymore,” I would kindly direct your attention to Merman’s Apprentice, the new musical byStephen Cole (book & lyrics) and David Evans (music), which tells “a musical fable” about La Merm mentoring a teenage star to take over the role in David Merrick‘s all-children version of Hello, Dolly!

Wait, what? No, Merrick never pulled off that stunt, though one can easily imagine him hearing about this show from the afterlife and ruefully thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” This is fable, not documentary. But like the best fables, it has plenty of heart and you might learn a little something from it too. 

And then there’s the music. As befitting a show all about Merman, the score takes its cues from the greats who provided hit after hit for the belter, so you’ll hear hints of Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, and Herman — but only hints. Evans has crafted a wholly original score full of memorable songs that tell the story without ever losing their essential song forms. Cole’s lyrics have an economical cleverness, delivering story without sacrificing humor or technique. (Thank God for a score full of genuine rhymes!) Orchestrated by Lynne Shankel for a six-piece band (opting appropriately for lots of horns and no strings) that sounds fuller than it has any right to sound, the score is well served by musical director Lawrence Yurman‘s bouncy-but-sincere approach.

The cast is anchored by Klea Blackhurst, who established herself as the foremost contemporary Merman torchbearer over 15 years ago with her phenomenal one-woman show Everything the Traffic Will Allow. Blackhurst’s approach to the character is very much in line with Evans’s approach to the score, always evocative, never imitative. Blackhurst channels her essence while taking advantage of her own, unique instrument. Blackhurst is an equally brassy broad, like a smart trumpet interpretation of Merman’s bugle call original. Newcomer Elizabeth Teeter (daughter of Broadway performer Lara) holds her own as the titular character, avoiding “cute kid” mannerisms while playing the ultimate Merman fangirl. The supporting cast includes notable performances from Bill Nolte as David Merrick, Eddie Korbich as Merrick’s General Manager, Brian Charles Rooney as Merman’s accompanist, and Anita Gillette and P. J. Benjamin as Ethel’s parents.

The packaging includes a lovely history of how the show came about by Cole, who also provides a synopsis.Peter Filichia contributes an appreciative essay, and there are a few photos (by Kevin Alvy and Maryann Lopinto) of this cast performing the score in concert at Birdland. Although this is a recording of the concert cast, the group reassembled in a studio at the end of the week to capture the score, so there are no applause breaks or clinking of glasses, only the crystal clear sound we’ve come to expect from producerJohn Yap.

While I’d love to see this show in a full production (perhaps filled out with a fuller band and a chorus), I have no idea if there’s a big enough market for a nostalgia piece that takes place in and around the last days of Hello, Dolly! for that to ever come to pass. But I am grateful that even if such a production never comes to pass, we have a first-rate recording of this score to listen to and imagine “what if…”

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