Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Whisper House
Back for its third visit to Cincinnati is the musical The Book of Mormon, which has been described as vulgar, obscene, and even blasphemous. While it's not difficult to see why some feel that way, it's also one of the best musicals currently playing on Broadway. The touring production boasts a strong cast, and the extremely witty, tuneful, and, yes, offensively funny show continues to generate lots of laughs from audiences.
The Book of Mormon (the musical, that is) 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. The pair try to share their faith with the locals, who are rightfully more concerned with surviving the war, abject poverty, famine, and disease that plague their daily lives.
The book, music, and lyrics are 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 Frozen. As one might expect, 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's 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 on in the musical is likely to be highly offensive to most people of 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, mostly letting the specifics of the faith itself create the humor. In one of the subtler comedic moments, Elder Cunningham, while sharing the Mormon teaching, is chastised for adding made up stuff to the holy scripture. This is a common complaint 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 visit frequency in the cartoon) 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 overly optimistic outlook of the Mormons while also celebrating them in song. Although the songs 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, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Sound of Music, are also spoofed or parodied delightfully. The book and score won Tony Awards, two of the nine the show won in 2011, including Best Musical.
Kevin Clay humorously captures the self-centered and ultra-assured nature of Elder Price, and is a skilled vocalist throughout. As Elder Cunningham, Conner Pierson delightfully embodies the needy, nerdy, and sloppy "follower," mining comedic gold at every turn. He's a fine singer and brings a very funny physicality to the role as well. Kayla Pecchioni, a graduate of Northern Kentucky University, is endearing and puts her vocal talents to great use as Nabulungi. Andy Huntington Jones gets plenty of laughs as the suppressed gay Mormon missionary Elder McKinley. The large ensemble does very well as true triple threats, and Cincinnati native Ron Bohmer excels playing several characters. Jacques C. Smith (Mafala Hatimbi) and Corey Jones (General) are also impressive in supporting roles.
The direction by Casey Nicholaw (Something Rotten!, Aladdin) and Trey Parker is quick paced, cleverly blocked, and has a joyful toneall of which is in sharp contrast to the depressing setting. This stays 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 wonderful, with several moments (especially in the first few songs) mimicking the exuberant moves from "The Brady Bunch" and The Osmonds and their sunny dispositions. There are also several African tribal dances and a fierce tap-dance number. Andrew Graham leads a fine sounding 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 benefits the show greatly. The costumes by Ann Roth are setting and character appropriate and frequently imaginative when needed.
Those who are easily offended may want to stay away from The Book of Mormon, but for those with stronger constitutions, it is a very funny and solidly crafted show. The tuneful songs, comedic story, and first-rate performances showcased in this national tour are sure to entertain those who attend.
The Book of Mormon, through August 5, 2018, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. Tickets can be ordered by calling 800-294-1816 or at http://www.bookofmormonbroadway.com/tour for more information.