Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Still running on Broadway after opening in 2011, when it won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, The Book of Mormon has spawned two national tours and productions in London, Australia and Europe. The touring production arrives at the ASU Gammage for the third time with a top-notch cast of performers who excel. With a very funny book and several showstopping numbers, The Book of Mormon may be filled with "F" bombs and crude language as it mocks and satirizes organized religion, but underneath it is a sweet story about finding your purpose and helping others.
The plot follows two young Mormon men who are sent to Uganda for their two-year mission. However, they find it's not so easy to convert the locals in a land of domineering warlords, poverty, sickness and strife that is nothing like the magical Africa they've seen in The Lion King. Adding to their problem is the fact that they don't truly understand themselves, their abilities, or the main purpose of the religion they're preaching.
While the show has a fairly basic plot and is a satire and spoof, it doesn't always go where you think it will. While comical, all of the lead characters are realistically written, and they grow and learn throughout. Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez crafted a very adult show filled with plenty of vulgarity, similar to what Parker and Stone are known for as the creators of the successful "South Park" TV series and which Lopez as one of the co-creators of Avenue Q has experience with. Even though it may mock Mormons, the show in an odd way also celebrates religion, friendship, and believing in your fellow man.
The tour is incredibly well cast with spotless direction by Parker and Casey Nicholaw that blends together seamlessly Nicholaw's experience of directing numerous shows on Broadway and Parker's playful sense of juvenile humor. Their direction, the clearly written characters, and the gifted cast ensure the individuals are realistically portrayed. Nicholaw's clever and inventive choreography turns many of the musical numbers into showstoppers with well-synchronized, upbeat steps tightly danced by the talented ensemble. The show also features a very funny dream sequence that involves one of the character's journeys to hell and some inventively hilarious spoofs of and homages to other well-known musicals, including "I Have Confidence" from the film version of The Sound of Music, which has an opening very similar to the show's soaring ballad "I Believe," and, in the second act, a sensational send up of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" from The King and I. While you don't have to be familiar with those classic musicals to enjoy either of those numbers, they serve as an added bonus to musical theatre fans and a true love letter to Broadway from Parker, Stone and Lopez.
The leads do an exceptional job of providing portrayals that are fresh and original. Liam Tobin is appropriately self-centered as the handsome, charming, over-achieving Elder Price, who thinks everything is about him and doesn't quite understand why he is sent to Africa when his dream destination is Orlando. He begins to question why God isn't listening to his requests. Tobin has several solos that show off his exceptional singing voice. As Elder Cunningham, standby Jonathan Sangster, who has performed locally in Flagstaff and the Phoenix area in the past, delivers an exceptional performance of this nerdy slacker who, it turns out, has an imaginative personality and often makes things up. We also learn that he's never actually read "The Book of Mormon." Sangster adds plenty of original, humorous touches to his portrayal that make his character goofy but also lovable. He has great stage presence and throws himself into the role with a boundless energy. His very funny dance steps from Beyonce's "Single Ladies" video in one number are spot on. Tobin and Sangster work well together and create a winning duo, even if they aren't always in sync, with one the clear leader and the other the obvious follower.
Alyah Chanelle Scott projects the perfect blend of naïveté and warmth as Nabulungi, the daughter of the leader of the village in Uganda where Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are sent. Her clear and bright voice soars on her solos. Jacques C. Smith does a very good job playing her overprotective father. As Elder McKinley, who has been stationed in Uganda and is clearly struggling with his sexuality, Andy Huntington Jones shines leading the showstopping number "Turn It Off" and also adding funny pops of humor throughout, which creates a charming, crowd-pleasing character. In a series of small parts and as the evil Uganda General, Ron Bohmer and Corey Jones, respectively, have been with this tour for a long time but both manage to create fresh characters. The hardworking ensemble is featured prominently throughout as dozens of characters and every member of this cast excels.
The musical won Tony Awards for its sets, lighting and sound and, while this touring production has been on the road since 2013, the creative aspects, which are only slightly scaled down from the Broadway production, look fresh and new. Scott Pask's set design is full of color and humorous touches, with a series of flats and set pieces that quickly transport us from Utah to Africa in seconds. Brian MacDevitt's lighting provides bright daylight for the scenes in Africa, cool colors for the night time scenes, and humorous elements for the fantasy nightmare dream sequence. Brian Ronan's sound design does a fairly good job in delivering clear vocals. Ann Roth's costumes are a combination of crisp white shirts and dark pants for the young Mormon missionaries, earth-tone prints for the African tribe members, period costumes for scenes that depict how the Mormon religion was founded, and over the top, colorful fantasy filled designs for the nightmare scene and the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" send up. Music director Andrew Graham achieves some tight, rich harmonies from the cast.
Full of interesting characters and comical situations, The Book of Mormon may be a satire but, in an odd way, it's actually a love letter to Mormons written by a trio of outsiders that paints the followers of the Mormon faith as sweet and innocent in their motives. And, while it truly lampoons Mormons, it also treats them in a loving and respectful way. The Book of Mormon is an extremely enjoyable musical with a huge amount of heart and, with a top-notch cast who get big laughs, the touring production proves to be a funny, touching and memorable show that will leave you with a big smile on your face. It might even tug at your heart, as while it basically mocks all religions, it does so with a huge dose of sincerity.
The Book of Mormon, through August 11, 2019, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit bookofmormonbroadway.com/tour.
Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone