BWW Reviews: THE BOOK OF MORMON Is Still Something Incredible
After being on the road for almost two years now, the hilarious nine-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical hit THE BOOK OF MORMON has finally made its way inside the OC. Though, sure, its second national tour has spent the past five months on an extended stay at the Pantages Theatre just a few freeways up in Hollywood, the show's arrival in the much more conservative So. Cal pocket of Orange County (home of several mega-churches, fyi) is something of a, well... a god-send. A foul-mouthed, earth-shaking one, of course.
And, man, it's about frikkin' time.
Not since WICKED has this much fervor been caused by a single touring stage musical---and all that hype and hyperbole about just how amazing this show is isn't an exaggeration; every accolade this show has received since its bow is indeed much-deserved. To borrow a lyric from the show, THE BOOK OF MORMON is, truly, "something incredible."
The giddy, über-devilish musical---which had its OC press opening Wednesday night---continues its two-week mission at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts through May 25.
Little has changed since the show first baptized Southern California residents with its sinfully good gospel back in the Fall of 2012, when the Pantages hosted the show's West Coast debut to---no surprise---enthusiastic, rave reviews (including my own, which you can read here).
Despite a few, very minor audio mishaps (in general, everyone's mics should always be raised a tad more here at the massive Segerstrom Hall), every joke, every sound, and every funny lyric rang clear as a bell, and had the entire theater howling.
The fact that, even years later, the show's clever jokes, witty lines, pop culture references, and gut-busting sight gags feel just as fresh and au courant as ever is a (holy) testament to the show's timeless, soon-to-be-a-classic status. After all, there really is no expiration date on wit and crassness when done well.
Centered on perfectly-coiffed Mormon wünderkind Elder Kevin Price (the outstanding David Larsen) and his nerdy, sci-fi- obsessed mission companion Elder Arnold Cunningham (the uproarious Cody Jamison Strand), THE BOOK OF MORMON tracks the pair's Jesus-sanctioned two-year mission into the wilds of Uganda. Tragically (and hilariously) out of their element, the two are tasked to spread the gospel and recruit new African members to the Mormon church---a rather difficult endeavor that many of the already-stationed missionaries in the area, led by flamboyant district leader Elder McKinley (the scene-stealing Pierce Cassedy), have failed to do.
Uganda, of course, is far removed from Elder Price's dream mission location: sunny Orlando, Florida. But, ever the optimist and self-anointed superstar that he thinks he is, Elder Price believes he is just the guy to get the impossible job done (and his new "best friend" Arnold is all the more happy to help assist).
As with any quest, there are complications. They venture into a local village where they meet Mafala Hatimbi (James Vincent Meredith) and his young daughter Nabulungi (the sweet and radiant Denée Benton) who, along with their fellow villagers, explain to the white boys that their lives are so hopeless---due to poverty, famine, disease, and lawlessness---that their only "salvation" to get through the day is to curse the very deity they have come to preach about here in Africa.
To make matters worse, a murderous warlord (the hulking David Aron Damane) has struck constant fear among the villagers, especially the women, all of whom he has ordered to be, ouch, circumcised.
Along the way, Kevin's blind faith in church doctrine is tested, while Arnold, a tall-tale aficionado with a wild imagination, finds an opportunity to step out from behind Kevin's formidable shadow and gain enough confidence in himself. To everyone's delightful surprise, he eventually wins over the villagers---and even his crush Nabulungi (if he could ever remember her name). Oh, and yeah, we are all rooting for the guy, too.Funny---correction, ingeniously funny---from beginning to end, THE BOOK OF MORMON may be deeply offensive and shamelessly crass, but it also, in the most pleasing of surprises, has a lot of sweetness and heart. It's truly a perfect storm of story, score, choreography, acting, and Broadway-style shenanigans that knowingly lifts from past shows and re-purposes these conventions for full comic effect (look out for stylistic, honorable riffs on everything from WICKED to THE SOUND OF MUSIC, from THE LION KING to THE KING AND I, and more).
Anyone expecting nothing more than crude, potty-mouthed humor and sophomoric high-jinks are in for a jolt: not only is THE BOOK OF MORMON one of the funniest, sharpest satires ever set to music, it is also, by all accounts, a technically accurate portrayal of the Mormon religion's basic tenets. While, yes, the musical does examine the Mormon church's, um, interesting origins and out-there core beliefs (anyone want a planet of their own?), they are approached with a sense of honesty and respect, even as the show skewers these tenets with such pointed precision. (And how does the LDS church respond? By taking out multi-page ads in the show's program---they clearly know how to play along)
Nothing here is ever disputed; their beliefs are clearly spelled out, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek. It is (somewhat) left to the audience to decide whether such beliefs are right for them.
How brilliant is that?
No doubt, THE BOOK OF MORMON won't be everyone's cup-of-tea, and many will, likely, be severely offended by the unapologetically crass material. But more often than not, great satire is the kind that makes you slightly uncomfortable, because it has the painstaking task of pointing out human foibles while making you laugh your ass off at the same time (and feel slightly guilty doing so).So, to my genuine shock, only a handful of the people in attendance---at least those within my eyesight---walked out in a huff, offended by the show's subject matter (I felt sort of bad for one older lady, sitting in front of me, who was itching to leave during "Hasa Diga Eebowai"). To be perfectly honest, I thought---this being Orange County---that more people would walk out; so I was certainly happy to see that, for the most part, my expectations were squelched and that many stayed to be entertained.
What else would you expect from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the Emmy-winning creators of the oh-so-naughty South Park, and Robert Lopez, the Tony-winning co-creator of AVENUE Q (and recent Oscar winner for his work on Disney's hit animated musical Frozen)? These three intelligent, entertainment-minded geniuses have united to put together a wholly enjoyable piece of theater that is not only just insanely funny, but also quite savvy and thought-provoking. And as much as the show "steals" from other musicals, THE BOOK OF MORMON still feels like an entirely original stand-alone show that is impossible to compare with any other musical comedy that has come before it.
This being the 2nd National tour, the show's cast has, of course, changed from its first pass in Los Angeles two years ago. But, like that ensemble, this new company is over-abundant in talent.
Aside from impressive leads Larsen, Strand and Benton (I sooo want to buy her solo album)---who all came with impressively nuanced new takes on the roles---and supporting players Meredith and Damane, other standouts include Christopher Shyer (who plays multiple roles including original prophet Joseph Smith), Anthony C. Chatmon II (who plays the village's maggot-infested doctor), and divalicious villager Nichole Turner with the big belty pipes.
And, finally, more kudos to Cassedy for his endearing portrait of kinda-in-the-closet Elder McKinley---a consistently a scene-stealing highlight of the show. (Also, a special shout-out to that one ensemble actor who plays a Mormon missionary who broke out with his own stratospherically-high gospel riffs during the finalé---whom I wish I could identify by name to properly give credit).
Definitely proving itself to be just as enjoyable on subsequent viewings, THE BOOK OF MORMON is, overall, a great balance of wit, wisdom, and wisecracks. And, by gosh, I believe... that I really want to see it over and over again.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the 2nd National Tour of THE BOOK OF MORMON by Joan Marcus. Previous page: Elder Price (David Larsen) and Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand) prepare to leave Salt Lake City. This page, from top: Elder Price poses with his book; Elder Cunningham poses with the book he's never read; Nabulungi (Denée Benton) dreams of paradise in America.
Performances of THE BOOK OF MORMON continues at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through May 25. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.