Monday, August 26, 2013
Theater review: You will regret it if you don’t see The Book of Mormon in Dallas
It not only matches the hype, it surpasses it in abundance.
DALLAS As the saying goes, you do not mix politics and religion. We know there is supposed to be separation of church and state in our laws (quick, pull the soapbox out from under me on that topic!). But what about religion and musical theater? Those two elements have often been woven together to achieve various degrees of critical and financial success. Several musicals have reached that rare achievement of becoming monster hits while others are sent back to the confessional to explain why it flopped.
Godspell and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are two musicals that had moderate successes in their original runs. Godspell's original 1977 run racked up 527 performances. Alas, its 2012 revival only reached 264 performances. Joseph's original 1982 run fared better with 747 performances. A glitzy, splashier revival in 1993 reached 231 performances before closing. Both productions received tepid reviews in their Broadway debuts but have become staples for many regional and community theaters across the nation.
Andrew Lloyd Webber composed not one, but two religious musicals that reached the great White Way, the aforementioned Joseph and the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which made its debut on Broadway in 1971, running for 711 performances. It has had three revivals since, in 1978, 2000, and 2012. All four productions of JCS received very divisive reviews. I saw the 2000 Broadway revival at the Ford Center of Performing Arts and found it to be a remarkable, powerful production.
Those three musicals wrap their book, score, and lyrics around biblical stories. Other musicals have some connection to religion, such as Maria's transformation from nun to governess in The Sound of Music, Tevye’s Jewish customs and beliefs in Fiddler on the Roof, and of course the theme of spiritual redemption in Les Misérables. Sister Act The Musical barely skates around religion but it does take place in a convent!
The flop bin of Broadway holds 2012's Scandalous: The Musical, which was based on the life and trials of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who loved to put on religious pageants to move an audience. The show lasted only three weeks, taking a reported $2 million loss. Then there was Leap of Faith, based on the 1992 Steve Martin film in which a preaching con man is offered a chance at redemption. This musical (which had several major backstage dramas) gasped and keeled over after only 20 performances in May 2012.
And then there is The Book of Mormon, a musical that came from the insanely genius minds of the creators of South Park and Avenue Q, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez.
The musical took seven long years of development before it reached Broadway in 2011. But when it did, it mowed down all other Broadway musicals playing at the time, becoming one of the biggest hits since Jersey Boys and Wicked. The musical won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
As a devoted fan of Parker and Stone, I am quite familiar with their background, which is grounded in musical theater. Parker, in particular, did musical theater back in Colorado, where they’re from. When Parker met Stone in college, a friendship was born between two college dudes with the same twisted sense of humor. Their first venture was in 1993 with a film musical called Cannibal! The Musical. I caught this on cable late one night and laughed so hard at not only its book but also the lyrics. Besides their acclaimed, animated TV series, South Park, they also did films such as South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (earning an Oscar nod for their songs) and Orgazmo. The latter followed a Mormon missionary who winds up in the world of porn to make money to pay for a big wedding. When both started to work on the film Team America: World Police, their Producer Scott Rudin told them to catch Avenue Q on Broadway, since their film would be using marionettes. In that strange twist of fate, Avenue Q creators Lopez and Marx noticed Parker and Stone at one of the performances. Lopez told them that the film South Park was a major influence for Avenue Q. The four had drinks afterwards, and their collaboration for The Book of Mormon began. During its long development phase, Marx began to have artistic battles with Parker. Strongly feeling his creative control was being seeped from his grasp, he left the project.
During the next several years there were endless workshops with an array of actors and directors. When they finally reached Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, with a price tag of $9 million, they went into four weeks of rehearsals, two weeks of tech and then straight into previews. The first evening would also be the first time the producers were allowed to see what all their investment money got them.
The production was met with mouthwatering, over-the-top rave reviews from the Gotham critics; the kinds of reviews Rialto producers drool and fantasize about. Jon Stewart had Parker and Stone on The Daily Show and praised the show so much that his comment became a permanent quote for all its print and poster ads. During the first year run, the musical had to deal with scalpers and fraud ticketing. Because of the high demand for tickets, producers of TBOM have charged skyrocketing prices for the best seats, including the national tour, which currently sits at the Winspear.
So with all the hype and astronomical ticket prices, does The Book of Mormon live up to its staggering critical and box office success?
You can really only judge Lopez’s sense & style of humor by Avenue Q, which was spot-on and very fresh for Broadway audiences when it premiered the Golden Theatre. I saw the original Broadway production & indeed it was very unique and spoke to its audiences on many levels. Thus, let’s focus on the other two creators of this musical.
The humor of Parker and Stone is definitely an acquired taste. They have no filters when it comes to the creation of their comedy. On their long hit, South Park, they’ve had a singing poop log named "Mr. Hankey" and the school cafeteria Chef sing a song titled "Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls." They have poked fun at every race, nationality, religion, sexual preference, etc. You name it; they did a joke about it. Celebrities are a major target for these two, most famously skewering Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson.
Their film work also goes far off the deep end of dark comedy. In Team America: World Police, a musical number spoofing the rock opera Rent has the marionettes singing a song titled "Everybody Has AIDS." Here's one of the verses:
"Everyone has AIDS! / My grandma and my dog 'ol blue (AIDS AIDS AIDS) / The pope has got it and so do you (AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS) / C'mon everybody we got quilting to do (AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS) / We gotta break down these barricades, everyone has AIDS!"
Suffice to say, you really need a very, and I mean VERY, open mind when you enter the twisted comedy world of Parker and Stone.
The score composed for The Book of Mormon is a pastiche of pure Broadway signature compositions, with obvious layers within its musically familiar tones that remind you of songs from South Park and Avenue Q. Several of the songs’ openings sound the same, with a slow, melodic beginning that builds up into a robust, full-out number. The music is still blissfully melodic and chock full of exceptional numbers. It is very obvious that Parker, Stone, and Lopez poke fun at current Broadway musicals. Dispersed within the score you can pick up hints of The King and I, West Side Story, Wicked, and The Lion King. Some numbers are totally razzle dazzle Broadway fare such as “Turn It Off” and “I Believe.” There are rock tunes, such as the Act I closer, “Man Up”; a white man’s version of rap with “All American Prophet”; and soft, lush ballads like “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (get it?); “I Am Here for You,” and “Baptize Me.” The score is packed with one show-stopping number after another. In an unheard of achievement in musical theater creativity, there isn’t a weak number in the entire score. An unbelievable feat in itself, but every number also had immense purpose, character development and movement of plot.
But then there are the lyrics! That’s the sweet icing on this devilish, sinful score. With no fear of condemnation, they have to be some of the damnably funniest lyrics EVER created for a musical score! There is joke after joke, one-liner after one-liner; a cascade of gut-busting, uproarious lyrics that flood the audience. You are laughing so hard, you miss the next joke within these priceless comedic lyrics. But be forewarned -- these songs are for adults only, pure and simple. The lyrics are filled to the brim with ribald humor. So if you only adore the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein, then ... um ... these lyrics are not exactly what Maria or Anna would sing! I won’t spoil the hilarious riches by revealing what lies in store for you within the score and lyrics; you need to experience sitting in that audience.
This leads to my only complaint of the evening. The rapid flow of the lyrics in quite a few of the musical numbers made it difficult to understand what the cast was saying. Even with their clean diction, there were times where it was extremely hard to comprehend what was being said within the lyrics, and on occasion, within the book as well. Some of the African dialects and accents were so heavy they made it tough to appreciate the actor’s dialogue and lyrics.
The book is a masterpiece. Refreshingly, it’s not based on any movie or TV show; it is an original story. How friggin’ rare is that in today’s world of musical theater? It is about two Mormon missionaries who get assigned to Uganda, Africa for their two year assignment. Elder Price was hoping to get assigned to Orlando (he has this Disney view of the religion) while Elder Cunningham just wants a friend. He also has a problem of lying and making up stories which plays into the plot that will have you bent over from laughing so much. When they arrive at the African village they are met with war, famine, AIDS, death, and a Machiavellian general (with a name I promise you will never forget!). Cunningham also falls for the lovely native girl Nabulungi. A running joke is that he keeps saying her name differently each time he speaks to her.
These two missionaries join several of their fellow brothers from the Mormon Church who have been there for some time. They are led by Elder McKinley, who is repressing his homosexuality & with his fellow missionaries cannot get anyone to join the Mormon Church or get baptized. Thus ensues great conflicts of friendship, believing in oneself and the almighty above, the twisting of religion, a misguided search for truth, and layer upon layer of uproarious, exhilarating laughter. Your sides and face will feel the pains and aches by curtain call, from having laughed so hard for two hours straight. There are so many scenes where I had to wipe tears off my face from laughing so much.
Visually, this national tour does not water down or scrimp on the design elements from the Broadway version. In fact, it looks exactly like the Broadway production!
Scott Pask’s scenic design is flawless, detailed, and rich in both concept and execution. The proscenium is made to look like the Mormon Tabernacle with its pristine framework and multi-colored cut glass windows. High above at its center peak is a statue of the Angel Moroni with his trumpet (this plays greatly into several numbers!). Pask designed various set pieces to take the audience from the LDS Missionary Training Center to the airport, and then to the hot, humid Uganda village. The central set piece has wooden platforms, moveable stairs and huts, and grass foliage that covers the entire stage. One hut turns around to reveal its interior. The missionaries have their own hut and rooms. Pask also floats down from the fly rails various beautifully-designed, painted backdrops rich in color. Frayed, decayed and rusty-looking backdrops really seal in the bleakness of the African village. Wait until you see what he designs for the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number!
The lighting design by Brian MacDevitt is jaw-dropping unbelievable! One must wonder if special new technology in lighting instruments, gels, and gobos were invented when this musical was created. I honestly have not seen lighting like that before. The amaranthine parade of special gobos and light direction for number after number was astounding to observe. You can tell that MacDevitt had so much fun designing the special effects for “Man Up” and “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” Even the tiniest detail does not go unnoticed, such as the flicker of fire from the tiny huts far upstage or the sublime colors of the sunsets, sunrises, and skies for various scenes. I am speechless on how extraordinary the lighting design is for this production.
Ann Roth’s costumes complete the perfection in this triangle of production design finesse. The missionaries are dressed in their iconic white crisp shirts, black pants, and spit shined black shoes. The Ugandan villagers are in natural colors, patterns, and fabrics of an African tribe. But then Roth gets to have tremendous fun in several of the fantasy/dream numbers. Let’s not tell and ruin it for you, but they are hysterical costume creations that had the audience guffawing so hard I swore I saw gum & breath mints pop out of their mouths!
Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker’s direction is magnificent, precise, clean, and flawless. No pace issues whatsoever. You do get a sense the actors are allowed to ad-lib or go for the moment in several scenes, which only adds so much more fresh hilarity throughout the evening. Even with all the outlandish, adult-rated humor, however, they still find moments of sweetness and honesty within the performances and subtext.
Special standing ovation should go to Nicholaw’s out-of-this-world choreography! In particular, the numbers involving the missionaries has some of the most creative, original and spectacularly executed choreography. Their energy and tap dancing for the number “Turn It Off” becomes a show-stopping number in itself. The fabulous Act II company number, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” had the audience screaming their approval with robust laughter and applause. Every number is choreographed to the last measure of music. No pockets of lackluster movement or staging. It is pure showmanship all the way.
The ensemble of both the missionaries and the Ugandan villagers all provide splendiferous performances. They go full gusto for every joke. They squeeze every possible laugh they can achieve from the book and score. They sing with vigorous energy and fill the large Winspear Opera House with compelling, potent vocals. So add all that plus their splendid dancing and you can see why they did deserve the standing ovation at curtain call.
There were several stand-out performances in the supporting roles that deserve special mention.
Ron Bohmer (who served as special guest star and co-host at the 2011 COLUMN Awards Gala) gives each of his roles its own voice, body posture and unique characterization. He is the “All American and Apple Pie” father to Elder Price, and then later on portrays the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, complete with a sunny yellow-hued wig. Bohmer has delicious great fun as Smith, hitting the comedy of this character right on the money. Even when he is not the focus as Smith, observe his commitment to his character while he is upstage, because he will crack you up!
Bohmer possesses a rich, booming baritone voice. As Smith he is one of the soloists in the rap flavored number “All American Prophet,” so now he can add rap skills to his resume! He completes his trio of first-rate characters as the stuffy Missionary President who goes to Uganda to see about the success of his missionaries. His comedic pause and take to the audience after the Villagers perform a skit for him & his colleagues, it is comedic payola! Bohmer provides a home run hit with his array of characters in TBOM.
I first observed Stanley Wayne Mathis in the Broadway revival of Kiss Me Kate, where he led the company with his show-stopping performance of the classic Cole Porter song, “Too Darn Hot.” Here he is Mafala, a caring father but also a gentle, caring leader of his tribe. Here again he leads the company in a powerhouse musical number, and one of the most X-rated numbers of the night, “Hasa Diga Eebowai." That number is so wrong for all the right reasons. Mathis carries it with his usual amazing tenor voice but also with bountiful comedy. His chemistry with his daughter Nabulungi is quite touching as well.
Grey Henson steals practically every scene he is in as Elder McKinley. He is the leader of the missionaries stationed in Uganda. McKinley is also trying to suppress his sexuality, which plays hilariously into both plot and song to side splitting results as the evening progresses.
Henson’s characterization and explosive stage presence covers his performance with superior results. His energy is at full tilt, and the audience Thursday night could not get enough of it. Henson easily has one of the best numbers of the night with “Turn it Off.” Elder McKinley sings of what he thinks about which is wrong & how he shuts it off. Henson uses his dynamic comedic talents to nail the laughs both within his characterization and the lyrics. Later on look what he does with “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” He is outstanding and the audience loved him every time he stepped onto the stage.
Samantha Marie Ware is the lone female lead as the Ugandan native Nabulungi. This girl has a ravishing, beautiful face that could grace any fashion magazine cover. Her luxurious soprano voice can go from Broadway belt to soulful, gospel overtones in a split second. She may play the sweet heroine but the girl goes full force comedy within her characterization. She holds her own when she shares the stage with the two male leads. Her comedic chops are in full display in the baptism scene & song then later on in the “show within a show” sequence. That number is titled "Joseph Smith American Moses," which has a similar resemblance to the Rodgers & Hammerstein song “"The Small House of Uncle Thomas." But trust me, R&H did not think of frogs, female parts, and big … well let’s leave at that. Ware’s performance is a major highlight of the evening.
As the General, Derrick Williams does scare the bejesus out of everyone the second he appears on stage. But oh my lord, wait until you hear his name; it will have you guffawing non-stop. Williams has no major solo song within the score, but still delivers a terrific yet sinister performance as the vile warlord.
The stars of the production, and the ones who carry the show to phenomenal success, are its two leads, Mark Evans as Elder Price and Christopher John O’Neill as Elder Cunningham. Both remind you of other comedic duo superstars, both past and present, such as Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Aykroyd and Belushi, Justin Timberlake and Adam Goldberg, hell even Tina Fey & AmyPoehler! They play off each other magnificently. Neither tries to upstage the other, and both know when and where to share the spotlight. What makes their comedic partnership elevate to a higher level is in knowing instinctively when to play the straight man, and also the power of their comedic beats, pauses and takes. I am from the school of thought that comedy is a gift and cannot be taught. You need to peel each word and line to find every possible angle of comedy & its subtext; you don’t simply go for the punch line. Both of these insanely comedic actors know this. When one has the punch line or one-liner, the other knows immediately where to take the beat or take to the audience. This makes them so much more successful in both their comedic chemistry and performances.
Evans is a tall, pretty-boy actor who has an aura of pure wholesome, All-American innocence as Elder Price, with a love of the Mormon Church that glows all around him. He has a gorgeous tenor voice that makes his big, belting power ballads and up-tempo numbers showstoppers, one after another. From his Elphaba-esque anthem, “I Believe,” to his rap-flavored “All American Prophet,” to the hilarious company number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” he sings with a muscular set of tenor pipes that fills the house all the way down to the parking levels underneath the Winspear. Evans has the best takes to the audience within the cast. He knows exactly when to take a beat, and then do a take to O’Neill or others in the scene to garner even longer laughs from the audience. His stage presence is hypnotic; you kept veering back to him to see what he is doing even when he isn’t the focus of the scene. Evans delivers a majestic, commanding, resplendent performance.
O’Neill has this frenetic, frenzied, bouncing off the walls energy that never dims. If Times Square ever burns out, they just need to plug into O’Neill’s energy and all the lights would turn back on! His comedic timing, delivery and pace are unparalleled from beginning to end. His every scene mowed down the audience with laughter thanks to his talents. He has several show-stopping solos, my personal favorite being “Man Up.” With the support of Pask’s rock concert-style lighting design, O’Neill reveals the inner rock god that is within Elder Cunningham, and puts Bon Jovi and Bret Michaels to shame with this one number! O’Neill never once allows a comedic moment or scene go to waste. He makes sure to wring out every laugh he can, and boy does he succeed!
Both Evans and O’Neill are stars in the making. I predict great things heading their way in films, TV and Broadway. You will regret not catching these two blinding talents here in Dallas with this musical, mark my words!
There is a fine, tightrope line to maneuver when reviewing a musical that has so much hype behind it. You’re curious to see if they can perform successfully under the tremendous weight of being labeled a full-out, smash hit.
So, it is with great relief to state that the national tour of The Book of Mormon not only matches the hype, it surpasses it in abundance.
Make no mistake; the comedy really is suited for adults, but adults with an open mind. They go for the punches and laughs where no musical has ever gone before, and the outcome is HYSERTICAL!!!
I will fully admit I do not have a firm grasp on the history and knowledge of the Mormon church. Other than what I have seen in films and TV, or read in articles about them when they make the news. I actually learned a lot more about this religion during the presidential campaign because of candidate Mitt Romney.
Stone, Parker, and Lopez do take endless comedic shots at the Mormon faith, religion, its beliefs & methods, its recruitment, and how they came to be. But they bring all back in the end to an honest truth that could be said for any religion. But as stated before, Mormons are not the only ones in the path of this trio of creators. No one is safe in their comedic line of fire. You just have to walk in with an open mind and laugh your butt off!
I have not laughed so hard and so consistently during a musical production in quite some time. The Book of Mormon has to be the funniest, most original musical ever created for the stage. It jumps leaps and bounds over the last juggernaut musical comedy hit, Mel Brooks’ The Producers. It is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece of musical theater, the likes which may never be produced again. It is a landmark piece of theater that will be studied for years to come. This is the kind of musical that earns the accolades of the “must-see musical” ever since the '90s history-making rock opera, Rent. It is indeed a history-making musical that you will sincerely regret missing.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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