BWW Reviews: THE BOOK OF MORMON Graces Columbus - OMGosh, They Had Me at 'Hello'
How do you take a devout, sacred religion like Mormonism, pack in a bunch of old, Ohio conservatives, and somehow manage to have them laughing in stitches on topics like female circumcision, rape, AIDS, and homosexuality? That's the genius of South Park writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with AVENUE Q co-creator Robert Lopez, who accomplished just that. With 9 Tony Awards under its belt (holding in the maggots), THE BOOK OF MORMON is a truly brilliant creation of musical comedy, combining shamelessly offensive language with a generous heartfelt story, uplifting songs, terrific choreography, and quick wit. Continuous tornado sirens on opening press night didn't stop Ohioans from cramming into the Ohio Theatre to worship this truly amazing production.
To be offended by its content is to miss the point of this musical entirely. On its surface, THE BOOK OF MORMON relies on blasphemous jokes, expletive dialogue, and potty humor to dig at organized religion and third-world countries. However, deeper than that, at its core is a heartfelt story of brotherhood and self-discovery with lovable young men finding their way in a world ruled by uniformity and restriction.
Swiftly directed by Casey Nicholaw (who also choreographed) and Trey Parker, THE BOOK OF MORMON follows two new randomly selected Mormon missionaries from Salt Lake City who are sent out to a remote village in Uganda to teach their faith and baptize new members into the church. Tall, handsome Elder Kevin Price (played by Mark Evans), along with short, stout Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) are polar opposites as they venture out into a land plagued with poverty, famine, and scrotum-threatening disease.
The two meet up with other members of the Mormon church who have been unsuccessful at converting the village for three months. Price and Cunningham then set out on a spiritual and emotional transformational journey where not only do they convert the African village to Mormonism, but they themselves discover a personal transformation of their own.
Mark Evans is spectacular as the clean-cut Elder Price who has just the right balance of humble leadership combined with a self-assuredness and entitlement. His rendition of "I Believe," while not as vocally open and powerful, still resonates a depth to make his character believable.
Sidekick Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) displays pure comedic genius as he clumsily proves he's more than just a follower. At first an awkward Sci-Fi geek tagging along like a puppy dog, he finds himself alone after his leader goes on a self-indulgent search for "Planet Orlando." He quickly studies the "boring" teachings, embellishes them for the villagers, and "Mans Up" just as Jesus did. With his memorable one-liners, hilarious facial expressions, and infectious dance moves, O'Neill could probably baptize anyone in this Columbus audience.
The entire cast is worthy of recognition. Alexandra Ncube radiates as the poignant Nabulungi with dreams of being swept away to the Promised Land of "Oo-tah." Grey Henson is hilarious as Elder McKinley, who leads the cast as the suppressed gay missionary in the big dance number, "Turn It Off," and Jeffrey David Sears excels in multiple roles as Joseph Smith and Price's Dad.
The supporting ensemble and other featured roles add up to an absolutely perfect musical theatre equation. Kudos to Costume designer Ann Roth, Scenic Designer Scott Park, Lighting Designer Brian MacDevitt, Musical Director Justin Mendoza, and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw who do an outstanding job to add to the entire effectiveness of the show.
Astute theatergoers will recognize cleverly woven references to other musicals such as BYE BYE BIRDIE ("Telephone Hour" similar to "Hello"), THE SOUND OF MUSIC ("I Have Confidence" similar to "I Believe"), THE LION KING ("Hakuna Matata" similar to "Hasa Diga Eebowai"), and WICKED ("You and Me But Mostly Me" mimics "Defying Gravity"), among others.
Layering a brilliant story with catchy songs and clever humor, it's hard to cast stones at what some have criticized as a frontal attack on the Mormon faith, not to mention most fundamental religious dogmas. Although it certainly jolts audiences with its outlandish cynicism and crass language, the show is carefully crafted to allow a tender, sweeter examination of the religious teachings while still upholding an unwavering faith for its followers.
Growing up in a very strict religious background myself, I have to admit that at the start of this musical, my arms were folded across my chest and I had one foot in the aisle ready to make a quick escape. But as soon as those pearly white smiles appeared on stage and their mouths opened to sing praises, I have to say those Elders "had me at 'Hello'." It's nearly impossible to take offense at something so creatively spectacular. Although the language is rude, harsh, and downright insulting at times, the trinity of spectacular acting, soaring vocals, and creative brilliance will make even the harshest critic a believer.
THE BOOK OF MORMON continues performances through May 25, 2014 at the Ohio Theatre. Tickets are available at the CAPA Ticket Center (39 E. State St.), all Ticketmaster outlets, by visiting ticketmaster.com, or by calling 614.469.0939. Group orders of 10 or more may be placed by calling 614.719.6900.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus