BWW Reviews: PPAC Ends Its Season on Heavenly Note with THE BOOK OF MORMON
It's difficult to argue with anyone who says that Providence Performing Arts Center has had a spectacular season. You'd be hard pressed to find such an impressive collection of musical productions brought together during a single season anywhere. Of course, this is just what organizations like PPAC do, they put together impressive seasons filled with stunning theatrical spectacles, from newer shows, like Once and Ghost: The Musical, to all-time Broadway favorites like Phantom of the Opera and Man of La Mancha. The season ends on another high note with one last smash hit Broadway musical, both critically acclaimed and a fan-favorite, The Book of Mormon.
Written by the same guys who created and write South Park, The Book of Mormon is pure satire, from beginning to end. Really, it's more than just satire. It's a dark, biting, wicked, take-no-prisoners kind of satire that skewers the Mormon religion. Focusing on a pair of missionaries who are sent to Uganda to convert the locals, the musical lampoons every aspect of Mormonism, but also takes jabs at just about every other major religion. It's really a sendup of organized religion in general, how it is created, how it's passed from one person to the next, how it changes people and, in the end, how useful or unnecessary it might actually be.
While there are some interesting messages and questions to be found in the story, such as questions about whether or not religion is ever actually real or just made up by somebody to suit their particular needs, the show is not to be taken seriously. There's really no way to view this musical other than with the belief that everything is just a joke, all in good fun and all in the name of lots of innocent laughs.
One problem with the show, though, is that there's really just one joke and it gets stretched out over two long hours. It's basically "Mormonism is silly. Let's make fun of Mormonism." And that's pretty much it. Almost every scene, song, monologue and dance number is servicing that one joke, that Mormonism is silly and should be made fun of. Taken as a half-hour, or maybe hour-long, episode of the South Park cartoon, that's just fine. But making it into a two-hour musical really stretches things pretty thin. There's a lot of repetition and some of the humor does get really old.
Still, there are a lot of hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments, most of which revolve around one of the missionaries, Elder Cunningham. Cunningham is one of the two young men sent to Uganda and he starts out as the sidekick to the more assertive, self-confident and ambitious Elder Price. Over the course of the musical, Price kind of recedes into the background, in a way, as Cunningham proves to be a far more interesting and more entertaining character.
That is in no small part to the tour de force performance of Christopher John O'Neill as Elder Cunningham. O'Neill, often carrying the show on his shoulders, brings an impressive and unlimited amount of energy and vitality to the role, combined with a wonderful charm and undeniable charisma. He brings not only a fantastic singing voice but also a real believability to the character, making him human and lovable, somebody for the audience to really sympathize with and root for.
On the evening of press night, the other lead, Elder Price, was played by a standby, Jonathan Cullen. You'd never know that he wasn't the usual lead actor, as he seemed to be perfect for the role. His on-stage rapport with O'Neill is fantastic, providing some of the show's best moments. A capable singer and actor, he brings a wonderful, believable life to what is written as a pretty shallow character.
While the show is populated mostly by men, lots of Mormon missionaries not to mention the many Ugandan villagers, Alexandra Ncube is a joy to watch as Nabulungi, a woman in the village with whom Elder Cunningham develops an emotional relationship. Ncube is adorable and her singing voice is both gorgeous and powerful. Her moments with O'Neill as Elder Cunningha are the show's best. Many of the other ensemble members showcased the highest levels of talent in both singing and dancing. Grey Henson as Elder McKinley, one of the other Mormon missionaries in Uganda, and Stanley Wayne Mathis as Mafala Hatimbi, Nabulungi's father, were both standouts among the large ensemble.
The Book of Mormon is truthfully not a show for everyone. It is often crude and vulgar, with jokes that involve a number of themes or topics some would take offense to. It's the kind of show that gleefully offends everyone, in a way, doing it in the name of innocently providing entertainment and laughs, with no actual harm intended. Some in the audience didn't take it that way and seemed to not enjoy the show. Others took it in a different spirit and laughed uproariously.
Either way, the show's success cannot be denied. It has won numerous awards including a Tony for Best Musical and a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. It is a show filled with huge dance numbers, hilarious gags, beautiful songs and perfectly designed musical theater magic and spectacle. As long as you can forgive some of the subject matter, you will no doubt find many things in this Book to enjoy.
The Book of Mormon runs through May 11 at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Performances are at 7pm on Tuesday and Wednesday, 7:30pm on Thursday and Friday, 2pm and 8pm on Saturday, and 1pm and 6:30pm on Sunday. Tickets are available for purchase online, www.ppacri.org, by phone at (401) 421-2787 , or at the PPAC Box Office located at 220 Weybosset Street in downtown Providence. Regular Box Office Hours are now in effect and are Monday - Friday from 10A-5P; Saturday 10A-2P and through curtain time(s) on show days.
Pictured: THE BOOK OF MORMON First National Tour Company. Photo (c) Joan Marcus, 2013.