BWW Reviews: THE BOOK OF MORMON is Joyfully Irreverent and Surprisingly Uplifting

By: Sep. 05, 2013
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In March 2011, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone's joyfully irreverent, soulfully blasphemous, and wholly scandalous comedy The Book of Mormon took Broadway by storm, going on to win 9 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Score. The musical quickly developed a ravenous parish of fans that simply couldn't get enough of the bawdy spectacle, and left many around the nation counting the days until the First National Tour kicked off. After a short two-and-a-half year wait, Houston audiences are getting their chance to experience the production, and judging by last night's reaction, we couldn't be more enthusiastic or pleased. Now holding a coveted spot as one of the best musicals I have ever seen, this show was definitely worth the wait!

Press materials for the immaculately hilarious The Book of Mormon tout Ben Brantley of The New York Times as stating that the show is "The best musical of the century." While this zealous hyperbole is conspicuously missing from his online review, I faithfully know that someone somewhere is truly onto something. The reason being is The Book of Mormon, in spite of all of its crass humor and fowl language, features a simplistic yet clever book that is just as satisfying and satiating as its glorious production numbers that range from extraordinary tap to Vaudeville Minstrel show. Every piece of this well-oiled machine, especially Casey Nicholaw's brilliant and overly exaggerated choreography and Scott Pask's both opulent and stark Scenic Design, works impeccably to entertain and surprisingly touch our hearts. Coming from the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and the co-creator of AVENUE Q, Robert Lopez, all I expected to find was a raunchy buddy film-esque story. Instead, I found salvation in a musical that embraces sacrilege to teach audiences that regardless of how faithfully we cling to any teachings of any religion, from a differing angle those stories that help us to understand life, our purpose on Earth, death, and get us through the hard times look absurd. Furthermore, The Book of Mormon keenly kneels at the glitzy alter of the church of Broadway. For the observant, this modern musical written in the vein of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic manages to incorporate references to many golden theatrical properties. Some references are blatant and some are deftly subtle, like the nods to WICKED's "The Wizard and I" in "You And Me (But Mostly Me)." Naturally, as the missionaries in this production are sent to Uganda, THE LION KING becomes ample fodder for the production. Yet, the plot is a contemporized amalgamation of THE SOUND OF MUSIC and THE KING AND I. Somewhat like Anna Leonowens, two fresh-faced Mormon boys traveling to the darkest and most destitute regions of the Third World are being charged with imparting knowledge onto people with beliefs much different than their own. Our young protagonists don't get to butt heads with the King of Siam or Captain Georg von Trapp; instead, they encounter a psychotic warlord general. In the place of the swooning and sweeping romantic plots, we are gifted with an intriguing and unpredictably affecting bromance. Now, I am remiss to say much more about the plot because I just don't want to spoil the fun.

Taking on the role of the socially awkward and nerdy Elder Arnold Cunningham is Christopher John O'Neill, who is making his professional debut. He enthusiastically embraces every wacky element of his character, and with the aid of a strong book creates the most likeable character in the history of Musical Theatre. Christopher John O'Neill plays every element of Elder Cunningham to perfection, actually making my eyes mist up during the musical's sweet resolution. Likewise, he often lets his golden pipes be manipulated by his throat and mouth to create humorous effects, especially during the Act I rockshow finale "Man Up," which takes skilled vocal prowess. He fantastically steals the show with performances like "I Am Here for You," "Man Up," "Making Things Up Again," and "Baptize Me."

Mark Evans, a Welsh-born actor, leaps across the pond from London's West End and makes a fascinating splash as Elder Kevin Price in the tour of The Book of Mormon. At 28, he appears incredibly young and is convincing as the confident and dream-filled 19-year-old missionary. While his character Kevin, the most cherished and beloved missionary-in-training, is conceited and thinks he is the star of the show, Mark Evans slyly gives the spotlight to Christopher John O'Neill's Cunningham. This is not to say he doesn't take a few moments to adamantly shine in his role, he just doesn't steal the show out from under his companion. His electrifying tenor is put to remarkable use on his solo during "Two By Two," "You and Me (But Mostly Me)," "All American Prophet," "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," and his soaring rendition of "I Believe."

As Nabulungi, Samantha Marie Ware is radiant and mesmerizing. She plays the spirited youth with dexterity, making her comical in her hopeful naivety. She moves audiences with precise and emotive renditions of "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," "Baptize Me," and the heartbreaking "Hasa Diga Eebowai (Reprise)."

The rest of the enthusiastic and energetic company all do notable jobs as well. They bound upon the stage with tangible charisma, ensuring that the production is more uplifting than it is offensive. Each member of the company embraces their roles and commits to entertaining the audience with them. Standouts include the repressed Elder McKinley played by Grey Henson, Derrick Williams as the psychotic warlord general, Ron Bohmer's Joseph Smith, Josh Breckenridge's Doctor, and the women of Uganda played by Laiona Michelle and Lacretta Nicole.

It's no secret that I often enjoy the theatrical productions I have the pleasure of attending. However, in all honesty, it has been a long time since I have left a musical this exuberant and alive. Leaving The Hobby Center last night, I felt as though I was floating on air. Having listened to the recording of the score more times than I could count, I knew I'd like The Book of Mormon; however, I could have never guessed how much I would adamantly adore the show. The Book of Mormon left me grinning from ear to ear, put pep in my step, and left me faithfully refreshed and rejuvenated. Don't miss this show. Tickets are scarce at best, so if you haven't purchased yours yet, you may be better off trying to win the day of show $25 ticket lottery. Read more about the ticket lottery here.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

THE BOOK OF MORMON, presented by Broadway Across American - Houston, plays The Sarofim Hall at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 now through September 15, 2013. Performances are Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00pm. For more information and tickets, please visit or call (800) 952-6560.

Photos by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Broadway Across America.

Mark Evans.

THE BOOK OF MORMON First National Tour Company.

THE BOOK OF MORMON First National Tour Company.

Phyre Hawkins, Mark Evans & Christopher John O'Neill.

Mark Evans & Derrick Williams.

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