BWW Review: THE BOOK OF MORMON at Rochester Broadway Theatre League
In stark contrast to its season-opening jukebox hit "Summer", the Rochester Broadway Theatre League continues its 2019-2020 season with the boundary-pushing, Tony-winning musical "The Book of Mormon", the biting and wonderfully heavy-handed sensation that satirizes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its many quirky oddities through the eyes of two doughy-eyed missionaries.
"The Book of Mormon", by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of "South Park" fame), focuses on newly-minted Mormon missionaries Elder Cunningham (Jordan Matthew Brown), a socially-awkward, clumsy mega-dork with a tenuous grasp on the religion he's proselytizing; and Elder Price (Liam Tobin), a gleaming, polished Captain America-type, as they embark on their two-year mission assignment in Uganda. The well-intentioned young Latter-Day Saints quickly learn that the Ugandan locals are too distracted by more pressing issues like AIDS, famine, and village warlords to take religious study very seriously, and that mass conversion may not be as easy as they anticipated.
The demands of the "Book of Mormon" cast are fierce, as actors must have the acting, dancing and singing chops of any traditional musical theatre performer, but also be skillful comedians. The cast of "The Book of Mormon" more-than rise to the challenge by combining high-caliber Fosse-like dancing, soaring vocal abilities, and the comedic sensibilities of Mel Brookes and The Three Stooges. Standouts include Nabulungi (Alyah Chanelle Scott), the young villager desperate to escape to Salt Lake City (or rather, "Sal Tlay Ka Siti"); Elder Price, who morphs from a valiant Mormon foot soldier into doubter and deserter; and of course, Jordan Matthew Brown's Elder Cunningham, whose comedic timing is impeccable and social sensibilities wonderfully awkward.
The "Book of Mormon" cast delivers performances that are as tight and energetic as anything you'll see on Broadway. Big flashy numbers like "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" and "Hasa Diga Eebowai" are uproarious and over-the-top, while moving solos like "I Believe" and "Baptize Me" showcase the vocal abilities of Tobin and Scott. Andy Huntington Jones, who plays Elder McKinley in this production, stresses that delivering quality night-after-night isn't always easy.
"For me, the challenge of any long-running show is to keep our performances fresh for a new audience every night when we have told this story many times before", says Jones. "I find that 'The Book of Mormon' stays fresh after hundreds of performances because it is so deeply relatable. It's a show about belief, friendship, disappointment, and our common humanity. The fact that our themes are so universal makes it easy to show up fresh every day."
"The Book of Mormon" certainly contains themes of friendship and the power of belief, but the packaging isn't Disney-esque. Like "South Park" before it, "The Book of Mormon" doesn't offer light barbing or veiled critiques of the subject matter it's satirizing; in this case, Mormonism. Parker and Stone walk right up to the line, mutter "well isn't that cute", and then boldly step right over it. It doesn't take a terribly discerning eye to recognize that underneath the thin veneer of jabs about holy underwear and golden plates is a rather stinging criticism of the church's stance on everything from homosexuality to coffee consumption to global humanitarian efforts. Like in "South Park" though, Parker and Stone masterfully craft the comedy in a way that makes the show both funny and palatable for the agnostic theatregoer, but also critical and opinionated for those seeking controversy.
"The Book of Mormon" is edgy, irreverent, high-energy and wildly funny, surely standing the test of time as one of the great musical comedies of its era along with the likes of "Avenue Q" and "The Producers". It's playing at Rochester's Auditorium Theatre until October 27th; for tickets and more information, click here.