BWW Review: THE BOOK OF MORMON Testifies at Gammage Auditorium
In 2011, The New York Times' Ben Brantley declared THE BOOK OF MORMON "the best musical of the century" and no one had cause to disagree. Eight years later, still riding the elusive double dip of critical and commercial success, there are other contenders for "best" musical, but it still reigns as funniest.
Appearing at Tempe's Gammage Auditorium for the third time since 2015, THE BOOK OF MORMON is gaining momentum as it tours. Return patrons bringing the uninitiated was a common theme in the lobby, everyone wanting credit for introducing a friend to this hilarious show, the fan expansion perhaps driven equally by praise from lovers and loathers of musical theatre. Is "You and Me (But Mostly Me)" mocking WICKED or loving it? I CAN'T TELL. And that crossover appeal could keep THE BOOK OF MORMON touring for years to come. SOUTH PARK creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with AVENUE Q composer (and youngest ever EGOT member), Robert Lopez, have combined talents for a book, music, and lyrics that, on-paper, would seem unproducible. Co-directors Mr. Parker and Casey Nicholaw (THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, SPAM-A-LOT) saw beyond our massive underestimation of Broadway audience sensibilities and have delivered a modern, old-fashioned musical hit.
The show follows the misadventures of two mismatched Mormon missionaries. After watching the other young men get assigned to cities like Paris or Tokyo, (and an extended prayer to be assigned to Orlando), Elder Price (an overachieving young Mormon masterfully played by Liam Tobin) is posted to Uganda with Elder Cunningham (a bumbling, compulsive liar performed in a star turn by Jonathon Sangster). They arrive at a village ravaged by disease, poverty, and a vicious warlord where they discover that the missionaries already onsite have yet to recruit any new church members. Eventually, the villagers start to listen but only after Elder Price has spun into self-doubt and despair leaving Elder Cunningham (who admittedly hasn't read The Book of Mormon because "it's SO boring") to preach the Gospel. His embellishments with pop culture references inspire the Ugandans, especially the ardent Nabalungi (Alyah Chanelle Scott) to rise up against their oppressor. Ms. Scott is an impassioned fixture of the production. Her key, passionate moments walk the line of sincerity and tongue-in-cheek. Her performance gives the show the crunch that keeps it away from cotton candy. Andy Huntington Jones is a glorious standout as Elder McKinley (and Moroni); he manages opening night energy with long-run expert timing and leads the pack in the comic ensemble.
The "satire-or-not" debate eventually moves past simply the musical numbers and into whether the authors are encouraging or discouraging blind faith. It's the substance in that question that gives THE BOOK OF MORMON an extra something. It's the crease in the paper airplane that really makes it fly.
THE BOOK OF MORMON plays until August 11th. Tickets are available at asugammage.com.