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Chicago by John Olson

The Book of Mormon
Bank of America Theatre


Nic Rouleau
For those anxious to see The Book of Mormon, there are two reasons I can think of to catch this production—and that's not including the fact that it may be possible to get tickets months earlier in Chicago than you could for the Broadway production. No, reason #1 is that this company, billed as the second national tour (buzz is that producers hope to keep them in Chicago for a long time), is an absolutely first-rate cast giving flawless, high energy performances that are about as good as they get. The second is the chance to see what could be a very big star in the making in Ben Platt's portrayal of the nerdy loose cannon Elder Cunningham.

I can't compare Platt to Josh Gad or any of Platt's other predecessors in the role, but I suspect there will be many favorable comparisons made by those who can. Platt, a student at Columbia University who just last month was playing Claude in a student production of Hair and who was the nerdy Benji in the feature film Pitch Perfect, gives as funny and accomplished a comic performance as I've seen from anyone of his generation. As the admitted "lesser" of two 19-year-old Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda, he has perfect comic timing and the versatility to play the manic and insecure yet ever eager-to-please Elder Cunningham. Platt does this as broadly as the material requires but without condescension or comment on the character. Possessing an average build rather than the portlier physiques of Gad and others who have done the role, he can't rely on a "funny" body type for laughs. He earns them all with his delivery, which is all the more winning and engaging because of it. Plus, he has the musical chops and physical agility to lead the big first act closer, "Man Up," and bring a sexy naivete to the comic duet "Baptize Me." My guess is he'll be going back to New York City before very long to take over this part the next time there's an opening on Broadway.

The amazing cast is also led by Nic Rouleau as Elder Price. Rouleau played the role for a time on Broadway (including an appearance on this year's Tony Awards telecast) and has all the squeaky-clean charm and Eagle Scout-ness the role calls for. Though the part is funny enough, Elder Price doesn't have as many or as big comic moments as does Elder Cunningham, but Rouleau captures the duality of this young man, who believes he's destined for greatness but folds when things get tough. Even so, we stick with this man-boy as Rouleau shows us how Elder Price still is more boy than man, however much he would like to believe the opposite. Rouleau has a strong singing voice—powerful and full, yet with a slightly nasal quality that gives his character an appropriately adolescent tone.

There's a most amusing comic performance by Pierce Cassedy as the sweet but closeted and ineffectual leader of the young missionaries. And Syesha Mercado is especially touching as the innocent Nabulungi, the village girl who becomes Elder Cunningham's love interest. Chicago's James Vincent Meredith gives solid support as her father Mafala Hatimbi (all the more fun for Chicago audiences because we usually see Mr. Meredith in serious roles), and David Aron Damane is wickedly funny as the warlord who threatens the village. Choreographer (and co-director) Casey Nicholaw's dance moves—clever parodies of classic musical comedy steps—are executed with great precision by the company. There's not a weak link in the cast, which performs with all the opening night energy you'd expect, but the confidence of veterans who have been doing this a long time.

If anyone suspects that this insanely successful Broadway musical represents in any way a taming or softening of its creators—the insanely successful Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park and Robert Lopez (one-third of Avenue Q's writing team—let's put that notion to rest right now), The Book of Mormon has every bit of the audacity and boundary-crossing of Parker & Stone's long-running cable TV series and movies. In fact, some of the bits, like its depiction of the Mormon Church's beginnings and its vision of Hell (populated by Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and some wild costumes by Ann Ward), are right out of the "South Park" TV series and films. So are Parker and Stone's scatology and generous frequency of F-bombs. In fact, Lopez's Avenue Q, with its use of the word "sucks" in a song title and its porn-loving puppet Trekkie Monster, seems like, well, like "Sesame Street" in comparison. Even so, they build a new story and some brand new classic bits (which will not be spoiled here). At its heart, and it does have one, The Book of Mormon is about the struggles of young men to find themselves and the downtrodden to find hope.

Such is the stuff of classic Broadway musicals, and anyone who's seen some "South Park" episodes knows Parker and Stone are fascinated with them. Even their 1999 feature film, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, with music by Broadway's Marc Shaiman, was widely considered to be a successful pastiche of the musical comedy form. Working with an accomplished pro like Nicholaw they've created a real musical here. It is in fact "bigger and longer" than their South Park musical movie and feels it at points. Some of the numbers rely too heavily on a single joke and go on a bit too long. The self-referential bits like the Wicked parody "You and Me (But Mostly Me)" are sometimes unnecessary. At other times—"Joseph Smith American Moses," analogous to The King and I's "Small House of Uncle Thomas"—they work quite nicely. The first act finale in which the characters all return to sing their key themes a la Les Mis's "One Day More" is simply expected. And the plot of an outsider coming in to change a small community for the better is right out of The Music Man.

Overall, though, this mix of traditional musical comedy conventions together with Parker and Stone's outrageous and eviscerating satire is what makes this show seem fresh even as it feels comfortable and familiar. The entertainment value of Nicholaw's spectacular dances—satirical in a way that matches Parker and Stone's sensibilities—and our emotional connection to the characters make it satisfying. As performed by this company, it's absolutely irresistible.

The Book of Mormon is scheduled to play the Bank of America Theatre, 18 West Monroe, Chicago, through June 2, 2013. For ticket information, visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com, call 800-775-2000 or visit Ticketmaster outlets.


Photos: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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