The Book of Mormon
Broadway mega-hits have a way of instigating a backlash of armchair criticism when theatergoers across the nation who have been anticipating the second coming of the musical theater art form at long last get to view the show that everyone is raving about. The "prove-it-to-me" mindset can easily bring to mind the primary lyrics of the classic Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?"
This happened with Mel Brooks’ "The Producers" when the celebrated stage adaptation made its L.A. bow at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre in 2003 in a tour production starring Jason Alexander and Martin Short. One heard highly mixed reactions from Angelinos at that time. Yet any musical that pokes audacious fun at gays and old ladies and elicits belly laughs about Hitler’s reign of terror isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
The multiple Tony-winning blockbuster "The Book of Mormon," finally on the boards in L.A at the Pantages, certainly can’t be categorized as a docile or gently reverent musical comedy, though it revels in the sky-high spirits that are the hallmarks of most Broadway classics. It ultimately evokes plenty of the "heart" that Frank Loesser once wrote that we’ve "gotta have."
Thankfully craft and inspiration triumph in this tuneful, explosively hilarious, and yes -- determinedly dicey -- blockbuster. The multiple Tony-winning show boasts a prodigious creative trio of co-librettist/lyricist/composers, "South Park" gurus Trey Parker and Matt Stone and "Avenue Q" co-songwriter Robert Lopez-under the sublime co-direction of Parker and Casey Nicolaw ("The Drowsy Chaperone"). The happy news is that this exuberant musical is in shipshape form in its national tour edition, making its West Coast debut.
From the knockout power ballad "I Believe" to the uproarious group number "Hasa Diga Eebowai," which pokes gnarly fun at blasphemy while sending up "The Lion King’s" "Hakuna Matata," the score packs a knockout punch. It offers a mix of razor-sharp satire and an affectionate salute to traditional Broadway show tunes by way of tongue-in-cheek pastiche.
The consistently engaging book walks a tightrope between cheekiness and warmth, combining seemingly unlike qualities into a hell of an enjoyable time.
Following a choice opening number, "Hello!," set in Provo, Utah, where a cheery chorus line of Pepsodent-smiling and cloyingly earnest young Mormon men make highly unwelcome door-to-door solicitations, the plot quickly kicks into gear.
Two eager young missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-squeaky-clean and enthusiastic Elder Price (Gavin Creel) and chunky nerd Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner)-are paired up and sent to a primitive Ugandan village plagued by warlords, poverty, and an AIDS epidemic, as well as atrocities against women.
The hope is that the missionaries can convince the beleaguered citizens to convert to Mormonism. Forming an irresistibly rib-tickling odd-couple, Creel and Gertner share a perfect comic chemistry: a patient but long-suffering disciple and his clingy and goofy, but undeniably witty new pal.
The charismatic Creel boasts a resplendent voice and his captivating portrayal captures the amusing idealism of the young man, as well as his aura of self-importance. Gertner, who appeared in some performances of this show on Broadway as a standby, brings as much comedic energy to his songs as to his dialogue and perfectly timed shtick. He’s at his best leading the rousing "Man Up," which brings the first act to a smashing conclusion.
The story developments from there are best kept a surprise. Suffice it to say that despite the outrageous and racy humor that dominates the show, a pro-faith message is ultimately in store, in a highly satisfying conclusion.
There isn’t a weak link in the supremely talented cast, which is not always the case in tour editions. Particularly impressive is golden-voiced and radiant Samantha Marie Ware as local girl Nabulungi, who sings of her hopes for a better future in the stunning "Sal Tlay Ka Siti."
Also terrific is Greg Henson as Elder McKinley, a closeted gay missionary who croons "Turn it Off," a hilarious ode to coping with repression. Mention is also due to Derrick Williams as the horrific tyrant General Butt-Fucking-Naked (a sly reference to the real Liberian general called Butt Naked) and Kevin Mambo, as Nabulungi’s outspoken father, Mafala Hatimbi.
The design effort matches the TLC that went into the casting-Scott Pask’s endlessly inventive and appealing sets, Brian MacDevitt’s magnificent lighting effects, and Ann Roth’s frequently hilarious and smartly conceived costumes.
Nicolaw’s choreography is never short of brilliant, incorporating a dizzying array of dance styles and delicious references to classic work from the likes of Agnes DeMille, accompanied by original touches that seem distinctly suited to this material. Stephen Oremus’ musical direction and arrangements are likewise first-rate.
It’s hard to imagine that the "Book of Mormon" currently packing in the crowds on Broadway could be any more satisfying than this irresistible edition.