BWW Reviews: West Coast Premiere of THE BOOK OF MORMON Finally Blesses Southern California
Arguably the most anticipated Broadway musical to ever hit the road in recent decades, the worship-worthy comedy THE BOOK OF MORMON—whose just-launched first national tour is now cheerfully spreading its gospel at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through November 25—certainly lives up to its massive box office draw, critical and audience acclaim, and, of course, its cart-full of nine well-earned Tony Award wins, including one for Best Musical.
A giddy, crass, and surprisingly heart-felt stage show full of winking cynicism, this truly genius creation is, hands down, the best, most thoroughly entertaining musical comedy to ever be mounted on a stage for quite some time. It's rude, crude, and shamelessly offensive... and you're going to adore every single minute of it.
The deliciously devilish offspring of Emmy-winning South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Tony-winning AVENUE Q co-creator Robert Lopez, THE BOOK OF MORMON came screaming onto Broadway already branded with a blatantly rebellious comedy DNA—the kind that's expected to jolt audiences with its outlandishness, yet is still rooted in intelligence and finely-tuned social commentary.
What results is a winning, not-really-so-shocking musical filled with naughty, highly-memorable songs, easily-likeable characters, and razor-sharp dialogue that zips the show along without a single lull—it's hilarious from start to finish. To put it simply (while stealing a line from a movie), THE BOOK OF MORMON had me at 'Hello.'
The laudable brilliance of this amazing, high-energy show is that while it uses generous amounts of blasphemous jokes, expletive-laced dialogue, and, uh... well, toilet humor (metaphorically and, uh, literally) at the expense of organized religions, third-world populations, and the musical theater cannon, it is all executed with clever, perfectly-nuanced wit that digs much deeper than its sophomoric surface would have you believe.
On the outside, THE BOOK OF MORMON is a wicked—yet astutely fair-minded—skewering of the religion founded by "American prophet" Joseph Smith in the early 1830's. But, actually, at its core is a touching parable of an unlikely brotherhood, as well as the story of an awkward young man longing to find his place in a world ruled by uniformity, blind faith and restrictive parameters.
Co-directed by Casey Nicholaw (who also choreographed) and Trey Parker, THE BOOK OF MORMON tracks the spiritual and emotional awakening of a couple of Salt Lake City Mormon missionaries randomly paired together and forcibly sent away to a remote village in Uganda to spread their religious dogma and recruit new members into the church. The two teens in question couldn't be more different: on one end is the handsome Elder Kevin Price (two-time Tony nominee Gavin Creel), a confident, self-absorbed rising superstar within the church who longs to fulfill his post in sunny Orlando, Florida; on the opposite end is short, rotund Elder Arnold Cunningham (the awesome Jared Gertner), a socially-awkward sci-fi nerd with a penchant for making up wild, imaginative stories in place of actually reading his church's scriptures.
Naturally, both have opposing reactions to their pairing and their subsequent mission location. While Elder Price is deeply disappointed (he feels he's blessed for bigger and better things, at all times), Elder Cunningham is on cloud nine at the prospect of having a cool new "best friend" that is forbidden to leave his side. Elder Cunningham is also ecstatic about living in exotic Africa—which he imagines will be very much like the continent portrayed in Disney's The Lion King. Oops.
As expected, the pair arrive in less-than-ideal conditions. As colorfully explained in song by Mafala Hatimbi (Kevin Mambo) and his fellow neighbors, the village is plagued with poverty, famine, wildlife, and disease—not to mention the fact that they are living in constant fear of the local, murderous warlord (Derrick Williams), who has enacted a mandate that all women in the land must be circumcised. Things aren't helped much either by the missionaries already stationed there—led by effete District leader Elder McKinley (scene-stealer Grey Henson)—who have all been ineffective in recruiting any local converts.
But with every cloud, there is a silver lining. In this case, she comes in the form of Hatimbi's spunky, disease-free daughter Nabulungi (the beautifully-voiced Samantha Marie Ware), who dreams of a better life in that magical kingdom in Utah.
Funny as hell (hee hee), infectiously joyful, and beaming with, yep, Donny Osmond-esque flair, THE BOOK OF MORMON successfully—and rather unabashedly—lampoons its subjects without, believe it or not, crossing the threshold of mean-ness or outright offensiveness. If you're at all familiar with the creators' oeuvre, you already know that no one group (be it Mormons, Africans, Gays, Nerds, Mel Gibson) is off-limits for a little bleeped-out skewering. It's a tricky, ingenious feat that Parker, Stone, and Lopez have all mastered in their own respective previous works, and it's really incredible to see that their collaborative efforts have produced this impressive project. (It's clear even the Mormon LDS church itself "gets" this playful parody—evidenced by its multi-page ads in the Playbill for the show).
As foul-mouthed and over-the-top as it is, the show itself is a carefully-constructed satire that, at its heart, is kinder and sweeter than one might expect. While it certainly allows for an examination of the Mormon religion and, essentially, the unwavering, blind faith one needs in order to comply with its teachings, this terrific musical doesn't feel like a critical indictment of Mormonism (or any other strict religion, for that matter). Instead, the show is much more akin to being a hyper-active, hyper-stylized summation of the Mormon religion's core beliefs and their purported origin story—a dummy's guide to LDS, if you will, albeit delivered in a humorous way.
And the show's rapid-fire laughs come so steadily and often—a few are even uttered in quite affected African accents—that, at times, it's actually possible to miss hearing a few lines or lyrics which are obscured by loud laughter (To that end, I implore you to check out the show's magnificent, Grammy-winning Original Cast Album for a clear listen of the brilliant lyrics. Trust me, every song is a gem).
From a musical theater standpoint, THE BOOK OF MORMON is also—pleasantly—quite a mini-study guide for traditional book musicals, which it chooses to "honor" (or maybe "lovingly mock" is a better descriptor) with homages spread throughout the show. Aside from its plethora of pop culture references ranging from Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings trilogy (via sci-fi fanboy Elder Cunningham), the show features plenty of acknowledgments of past musicals, some more obvious than others (again, this isn't much of a surprise judging from the very musically-inclined creators' past work).
Observant audience members will notice winking touches to everything from WICKED and ANNIE to BYE BYE BIRDIE and, natch, THE LION KING. "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" has hints of "Somewhere That's Green" from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, while "I Believe" channels a bit of "I Have Confidence" from THE SOUND OF MUSIC in the beginning verses.
Even the "Dance at the Gym" from WEST SIDE STORY gets a few fleeting seconds of stage time. And perhaps its most blatant spoof is the villagers' gleeful second act "presentation" that dramatizes the story of Joseph Smith—that harkens back to the Siamese "Small House of Uncle Thomas" from THE KING & I. These provide yet another funny layer to its already steady stream of sight gags and savvy zingers.
The brilliance of the story and songs are, of course, rendered ineffective unless the show is equipped with an equally laudable cast. Luckily, THE BOOK OF MORMON's National Tour is blessed in this department, too. Though, admittedly, I'm afraid I might be a bit biased since I consider myself a huge, longtime fan of Gavin Creel, I can say without hesitation that he is absolutely great in the role of self-assured, clean-cut leader-to-be Elder Price—a nice complement to his roster of previous Tony-nominated roles in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE and HAIR. And with a heavenly voice capable of belting almost anything, his musical performances were a highlight throughout the show, particularly in his interpretation of "You And Me (But Mostly Me)" and the show-stopping power-anthem "I Believe." This guy kills it.
As Elder Cunningham, Gertner is, for lack of a better phrase, just pure comic awesomeness. His smile-inducing singing and dancing—and his discerning portrayal brimming with memorable one-liners, clownish facial expressions, and go-for-broke body movements—is pretty much the musical's showy-est, most reliable source of comedy. From his first awkward introduction, Gertner's lively demeanor instantly endears him to the audience. And when he finally gains enough mojo to break into "Man Up," he assures himself to be the one character that everyone really roots for to succeed (his confident riffs on "Baptize Me" in the second act is worth the price of a ticket alone).
In the role of Nabalungi, Ware is beautifully superb throughout, and becomes even more musically riveting while crooning "Sal Tlay Ka Siti." Henson's closeted gay missionary is a hoot in every appearance (he leads "Turn It Off" into a song-and-dance tour-de-force), while Mike McGowan tackles multiple roles exceptionally well, and is a regal standout as Mormon founder Joseph Smith. The whole ensemble, collectively, is just marvelous and is particularly outstanding during the huge rousing group numbers—whether tapping in time or shaking their bon-bons to a tribal beat. Bravo to the cast and to Nicholaw for some really fun numbers! Shout-outs are also in order for musical director Stephen Oremus' impressive, multi-layered musical arrangements, Ann Roth's tribal costumes, Scott Pask's effective, multi-leveled sets, and Brian MacDevitt's lighting designs.
One of the most enjoyable things about experiencing a well-done musical comedy like this on stage is the communal outbreak of laughter, and with THE BOOK OF MORMON, the space to do so is certainly encouraged. The emergence of this shared giddiness—as evidenced during the show's Gala Opening Night performance in L.A. this week—is a true testament to just how good this show truly is (seeing Parker, Stone, Lopez and Nicholaw bow with the cast during the Opening Night Curtain Call was an added, very deserved bonus).
With its magnificent songs interwoven with stunning cast performances and witty dialogue that is both shamelessly low-brow yet still whip-smart, THE BOOK OF MORMON is a genuinely impressive, near-perfect achievement in modern day musical comedy, and deserves every accolade it has received—and will continue to receive as the tour makes its way around the globe. Do yourself a favor and become a believer... and see this show while it's still in town (and pray that tickets are still plentiful).
See photos from the L.A. Opening Night here.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the 1st National Tour of THE BOOK OF MORMON by Joan Marcus. From top: Elder Price (Gavin Creel); Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner); the national tour cast.
Performances of the West Coast Premiere of THE BOOK OF MORMON at the Pantages Theatre continue through November 25, 2012 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. Tickets can be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets.
A day-of-show lottery for a limited number of tickets available at $25 a ticket (cash only) is held prior to every performance.
The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit www.BroadwayLA.org. For more information on the national tour, visit www.BookOfMormonTheMusical.com.