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Real Treat

'Merman's Apprentice' premieres in Sonoma

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It's a virtual Merman-palooza in the North Bay as two theatre companies present "musical fables" with Ethel Merman connections. Santa Rosa's 6th Street Playhouse runs Gypsy through Oct. 20 while Sonoma Arts Live runs Merman's Apprentice, an original musical with a fictional Merman character, through Oct. 13.

Merman's Apprentice is a throw-back to the classic Broadway musical—a simple plot, larger-than-life characters, a little schmaltz and lots of songs to tell its story.

Plucky 12-year-old Muriel Plakenstein (plucky 17-year-old Emma Sutherland) runs away to Broadway and runs right into her idol Ethel Merman (Dani Innocenti Beem). Merman, who's about to begin a short run in Hello, Dolly!, is impressed with Muriel's knowledge of her career and takes her under her wing. The next thing you know Plakenstein is set to star in an all-juvenile version of Dolly! for producer David Merrick (Patrick Barr). Or is she?

Playwright/lyricist Stephen Cole, a friend of Merman's late in her life, joined up with composer David Evans to come up with this theatrical valentine to her and to Broadway. As the first full production of the show, co-directors Jaime Love and Larry Williams had no playbook to follow. Adding to their challenge, Cole and Evans were present for the final week of rehearsal, so last-minute changes continued to be made.

The opening night performance went very well, but a few more changes should be considered. The first act overran a natural concluding moment and continued for two additional songs. The second act ran under 30 minutes. The acts should be better balanced.

There's nary a note of any Merman standard to be heard in the show, but Cole and Evans' score evokes the feel and sound of classic Broadway with lyrics that are often clever—one jarring anachronism aside. (I highly doubt a song ostensibly written in the 1940's and sung in 1970 would reference FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a dress.)

Sutherland is a dynamo as the title character. She more than holds her own with the estimable Beem, who catches the essence of Merman while wisely avoiding any attempt at impersonation. There's a nice ensemble at work, with both Julia Holsworth and Sean O'Brien a lot of fun as Ethel's Mom and Pop.

A theatre-lover's treat, the exceedingly pleasant Merman's Apprentice is what All About Eve would have been in the hands of Walt Disney.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★

'Merman's Apprentice' runs through Oct. 13 at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Thur–Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm. $25–$42. 866.710.8942. sonomaartslive.org.

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