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By Bridgette M. Redman
THREE OAKS – Sometimes an off-handed comment or a chance Facebook meeting can be the seed and fertilizer that leads to the blooming of a full-on garden. Such, at least, has been the case for a new musical getting its first reading before an audience at The Acorn Theater in Southwest Michigan.
Playwright and lyricist Stephen Cole was a good friend of the stage legend Ethel Merman during her life. She would bring friends over to his house to watch his video collection of old sketches that she had done early in her career. After her death, Cole was commissioned to write a musical entitled “Merlin’s Apprentice.” He joked that he would rather be writing “Merman’s Apprentice.”
A seed was planted.
“Merman’s Apprentice” first took form as a short story, the tale of Muriel Plakenstein, a 12-year-old who runs away from home to make it big on Broadway. She runs into a famous producer who is impressed with her ability – and her encyclopedic knowledge of Ethel Merman. He decides to introduce her to her idol and cast her in the first all-child cast of “Hello, Dolly.”
His friends said, “This should be a musical.” Cole agreed, and “Merman’s Apprentice” gained a new life with music by David Evans. With all-new music set in the style of a Golden Age musical, Ethel and Muriel form a bond and learn from each other in this comic fable that pays tribute to the late diva.
“It’s a musical fable, lighter than air,” Cole described “Merman’s Apprentice”. “It’s a Valentine to that era. A girl gets to star in the all-child cast. She gets to have her dream. I like the whole fable aspect of it: If you dream hard enough and work hard enough, you can achieve anything.”
Now the seed was a flower and ready to spread.
This is where Facebook entered the picture, and Stephen Cole met David Fink, the co-owner of The Acorn Theater.
“We like to help create new works, things that we think are interesting,” Fink said. “I met Stephen through Facebook, saw some YouTube videos of songs from the project. It looked really good and interesting. We started figuring out if it made sense to do the show at Acorn.
The result is a six-show reading preceded by a week of rehearsals with actors brought in from New York and Chicago. It features Klea Blackhurst, whom Cole said he wrote the part for as she frequently does Merman tributes in cabaret shows.
“We hope this will be helpful as a workshop,” Fink said, saying he hopes the audience will enjoy the excitement of being in at the beginning of something that could become big. “We’re helping to forge and create this new work and we have a nice arsenal of talent to do it.”
While the show is a loving tribute to Merman, Cole said he isn’t sure whether she would like it, as she avoided anniversary celebrations and tributes during her lifetime.
“She probably would not have wanted me to do it if she were alive,” Cole said. “I don’t know what she would think, but I hope she would like it. It’s a loving Valentine.”
Because he got to see her so often watching herself and making comic remarks about her work, he was able to use a lot of the things she would say about herself in “Merman’s Apprentice.” He set the show to take place shortly after the death of her adult daughter, and Muriel gives her a chance to heal. Included in the musical is a ballad that Merman sings to the ashes of her daughter.
“She is a little in mourning for her daughter. She sees a second chance to have a child and to do better by the child. She becomes a little softer as the show goes on,” Cole said.
He recollected how the first time he visited her at her home, Merman took him to a closet and introduced her to the ashes of her parents and her daughter. In the ballad, she sings to her daughter by the name she called her in life: Little Bit.
All of the songs are original, with one claiming to be a cut Cole Porter song from “Panama Hattie.” It is the song that helps Merman and Muriel bond, because Muriel knows this obscure song and they sing it together.
“Muriel is an outsider, she’s not like other little girls in the 1970s,” Cole explained. “They’re all into the Beatles and rock music; she collects show musicals and records and lives in a little fantasy world.”
Fink says he hopes the one-weekend of shows will attract audiences looking for some fun, light musical entertainment on Mother’s Day weekend – pointing out that it would be a nice Mother’s Day gift. He says audiences will get the opportunity to be a part of something new while being entertained, and the theater will be able to cover the cost of flying in the artists and paying the 11 performers.
“It’s a little crazy, this whole thing cost wise,” Fink said, “but artistically I have no reservations whatsoever. It is really fun to pay tribute to Ethel Merman. It is a little bit campy and a fun, light musical comedy.”
The Acorn Theater, 107 Generations Dr., Three Oaks. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 11 – 12 & 3 p.m. Sunday, May 13. $25. 269-756-3879. http://www.acorntheater.com