The Book of Mormon
The collaboration of Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez garnered a total of nine Tony Awards and critical praise from the likes of Ben Brantley of The New York Times, who called it "the best musical of this century," and "Variety" opined that The Book of Mormon "approaches musical comedy Rapture." I wish that I could jump on their exultant bandwagon, but I find myself teetering on the fence between feeling entertained and wondering what's the fuss. Perhaps my expectations were too high after reading all the hype and hearing the love lavished on it by friends and chatters. I really wanted to love it, too, but it was less than a religious experience for me.
Let me go on record to stipulate that I have thoroughly enjoyed Avenue Q on more than one occasion and "get" the crude wittiness in South Park, and I am neither offended nor shocked by The Book of Mormon. There are bits that I could do without (much of which occurs during "Joseph Smith American Moses"), but I just didn't find as much humor as I expected. Unfortunately, the harsh sound quality kept me from hearing a lot of lines that others laughed at (it was lack of clarity, not volume), so my focus honed in on the characters and situations where the comedy could get some traction for me. One of the bright lights is Christopher John O'Neill, making his professional debut as Elder Cunningham. He more than pulls his considerable weight in the role of the hopelessly nerdy follower whose own conversion fills at least a couple of the chambers of the heart of the show.
The good news is that the touring company puts on a top notch, Broadway-worthy production. Both of the male leads, the featured players and the ensemble (Boston Conservatory '09 Theater grad Bud Weber among them) are all triple threats who perform with energy and pizzazz. Mark Evans plays Elder Price with a big dose of confidence and brio, yet appropriately downsizes his ego when the young man is deflated by the challenges he faces in Uganda. As the only female character of any importance, Samantha Marie Ware (Nabulungi) is sweet, strong and sympathetic, and she infuses "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" with hope and longing. Kevin Mambo as Mafala Hatimbi, Nabulungi's father and leader of the villagers, and Derrick Williams, as the fearsome warlord with a name to match, both give strong performances.
Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has both male and female missionaries, the creators of The Book of Mormon eschew the latter and stock the outpost where Price and Cunningham are assigned with a group of clean cut white men who turn out to be nifty tap dancers. People of color have been allowed to enter missionary service since 1978 (there is a reference made to this shift in one of the song lyrics), but they are cast exclusively as the African villagers in the show. The limited number of roles for women and the nature of some of the jokes at their expense are in reverse proportion to the degree of frat boy humor that the show contains. Not that scatology is reserved for the male gender (Bridesmaids anyone?), but Mel Brooks has been doing it for a long time and, arguably, better.
Speaking of Brooks, some of co-director Casey Nicholaw's staging and choreography is reminiscent of numbers in The Producers, particularly the Elders' breakout tap routine in "Turn It Off." Overall, the dancing is crisp and well-staged, but not breathtaking. The songs advance the story and employ a variety of styles and rhythms, but unlike the music of iconic Broadway shows that influenced co-director Parker, Stone and Lopez, only a few lend themselves to being hummed on the way out of the theater.
Scenic Design by Scott Pask features a proscenium with stained glass windows to suggest the Mormon temple, colorful and detailed backdrop curtains to denote Salt Lake City and Orlando, and crude huts in the village in Uganda. Brian MacDevitt's lighting design is noticeable (in a good way), adding fiery red lighting to Price's "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," muting the village with a sandy tinge, and turning the stage into a rock arena for Elder Cunningham in "Man Up." Costume Designer Ann Roth chooses an array of multicolored fabrics for the villagers, evokes the uniformity of the Mormons by dressing the Elders in short-sleeved white shirts, dark ties and black pants, and creatively conjures up the followers of Joseph Smith and the evil denizens of Hell.
Beneath the sparkle of the glitter balls, the depicted depravity of the Third World, the unlikely saga of Joseph Smith, and the uber-irreverence of the creative team, The Book of Mormon has a mission, according to Lopez, to give the audience a positive, uplifting experience. It holds nothing sacred, but has a message about friendship, finding and sharing faith, and sends you out into the night with a happy, albeit somewhat unexpected, ending. If it isn't your cup of tea, consider that the show's fans may be drinkingor smokingsomething else.
The Book of Mormon performances through April 28th at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Tickets at Ticketmaster 1-800-982-2787 or at the Boston Opera House Box Office (limited number of $25 lottery tickets available at the Box Office 2-1/2 hours before curtain), or www.BroadwayinBoston.com. For more information on the tour, visit http://www.bookofmormonbroadway.com. Book, Music, and Lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone; Scenic Design, Scott Pask; Costume Design, Ann Roth; Lighting Design, Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design, Brian Ronan; Production Stage Manager, Kimberly Fisk; Music Director, Cian McCarthy; Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangements, Stephen Oremus; Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker. Cast (in order of appearance): Jeffrey David Sears, Grey Henson, Mark Evans, Christopher John O'Neill, Mike McGowan, Bud Weber, Phyre Hawkins, Bobby Daye, Mykal Kilgore, Christian Dante White, Kevin Mambo, Samantha Marie Ware, Derrick Williams, Jamaal Wilson; Ensemble: Jacob ben Widmar, Jr Bruno, Michael Buchanan, Daniel LeClaire, Douglas Lyons, Kimberly Marable, Laiona Michelle, Kevin Michael Murphy, Marisha Wallace