Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Book of Mormon tells of two young Mormon missionaries, Elder Price, an eager, charismatic go-getter, and Elder Cunningham, a social misfit and compulsive liar, as they are sent to a small village in Uganda. They try to share their faith, but the locals are more concerned with surviving the war, abject poverty, famine and disease that plague their daily lives.
The book, music and lyrics are all three by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the "South Park" animated series, and Robert Lopez, one of the co-creators of Avenue Q and the film musical Frozen. As expected, the story and lyrics are full of very funny humor, wry wit, social commentary, and likeable characters, while also using coarse language and crude humor. However, it is the presentation of the characters' take on faith and God that is most likely to offend. Without spoiling some of the comedy, one of the songs early in the musical is likely to be highly offensive to most people of any religious faith, though it does make sense in the context of the show. The show does parody the Mormon religion specifically, but it does so lovingly, and mostly lets the specifics of the faith itself create the humor. In one of the more subtle comedic moments, Elder Cunningham, after making up something as they share the Mormon teaching, is chastised for adding made up stuff to the holy scripture, something that mainstream Christians feel is highly applicable to the Mormon faith in general. Still, the show has a good heart and is ultimately about the importance of having faith, any faith, and the hope that comes with it. From a theatrical perspective, the book is solidly written, with steady doses of humor and plot twists and turns, though the inclusion of a dream sequence in hell (a topic the "South Park" authors seem to be obsessed with) seems unnecessary and weaker in quality.
The songs are generally upbeat, tuneful and well-crafted. "Hello" is a perfect opening song, and numbers including "Two by Two," "You and Me (but Mostly Me)," "Turn It Off" and "I Believe" are extremely clever and musically memorable. They lampoon the optimistic outlook of the Mormons while also celebrating them in song and, though they present certain faith themes in potentially irreverent fashion, they do so without any hint of mean-spiritedness. Several Broadway musicals, including Wicked, The Lion King and The Sound of Music, are also spoofed or parodied delightfully. The book and score both won Tony Awards, two of the nine the show won in 2011, including Best Musical.
This tour, one of two currently crisscrossing the country (in addition to the highly successful Broadway production), boasts a strong cast. Mark Evans accurately captures the self-centered and uptight nature of Elder Price and is a strong vocalist throughout. As Elder Cunningham, Christopher John O'Neill sings sufficiently and mines much comic gold as the dimwitted and backward follower who blossoms unexpectedly. The pair has great chemistry together and the show is in great hands with them as the leads. Samantha Marie Ware is endearing and puts her vocal talents to good use as Nabulungi, and Grey Henson gets plenty of laughs as the suppressed gay Mormon missionary Elder McKinley. The large ensemble does very well as true triple threats, and especially praiseworthy supporting performances are turned in by Stanley Wayne Mathis (Mafala Hatimbi), Derrick Williams (General), CCM grad Josh Breckenridge (Doctor), and Cincinnati native Ron Bohmer (various roles).
Direction is by Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Trey Parker, and is quick paced, cleverly blocked, and has a joyous tone, which, while in sharp contrast to the depressing setting, keeps in line with the satirical nature of the piece. There are also numerous moments of stage craft which are quite humorous and ingenious. Nicholaw's choreography is first rate, with several moments (especially in the opening songs) mimicking moves from "The Brady Bunch" and The Osmonds and their sunny dispositions. There are also authentic-looking African tribal dances, a fierce tap-dance number, and other aptly staged dance pieces throughout. Justin Mendoza leads a wonderful sounding 12-piece orchestra.
Scott Pask's sets are unique, varied, and serve the show very well, with the African locales being especially noteworthy. The lighting design by Brian MacDevitt includes many inventive effects, and it benefits the show greatly. The costumes by Ann Roth are setting and character appropriate and imaginative when needed.
The Book of Mormon isn't for everyone, especially those who are easily offended, but it is a very funny and solidly crafted show. The tuneful songs, comedy-heavy story, and wonderful performances showcased in this national tour are sure to entertain those ready and able to withstand the shock value of the show. Kudos to the Cincinnati Broadway Across America folks for taking a multi-pronged approach to communicating the potential concerns over the piece to their subscribers and ticket buyers.
The Book of Mormon continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through January 26, 2014. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information on the tour, visit http://www.bookofmormonbroadway.com/tour_page.php.
-- Scott Cain