Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
For the many theatergoers who are already fans of The Book of Mormon, the question is whether this touring production maintains the sharp edge and professionalism the show had first time around. I saw the first touring company when it hit the Orpheum over three years ago. Rest assured, the current run is as well acted, sung, danced, and staged as that first tour. The orchestra plays with the brass and brim of an opening night. Whether you are considering a return visit or planning a first look, have no fears of finding The Book of Mormon as sharp, professional and totally winning as ever.
The Book of Mormon relates the adventures of two young men who, having completed their training as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, are assigned to serve two years as mission partners in Uganda. Elder Kevin Price is hyper-confident, regaled as the best of the lot by his own classmates, and assured of his ability to bring converts into the church. However, he had prayed heavily to be sent to Orlando, his favorite place in the world, and is perplexed at Heavenly Father's rebuff to his prayers. His partner, Elder Arnold Cunningham, lacks confidence, knowledge of the church's teachings, and any semblance of social skills. What he wants more than anything is not to be a great missionary, but to havefor the first time in his lifea best friend. Since he and Elder Price are required to be constantly together for the next two years, he figures that now his dream has come true.
The two young Elders are sent to a small impoverished village besot with AIDS and under the thumb of a vicious war lord known as The General, who intends for every female to submit to genital mutilation. They have had their fill of Christian missionaries with lofty words unable to make a difference in the harsh realities of their lives. The Mormon missionaries already stationed there for the past three months have, in fact, been unable to win over a single convert. After a violent encounter with The General, Elder Price freaks out and leaves the mission post determined to be reassigned and fulfill his destiny in Orlando.
Ill-prepared and totally awkward Elder Cunningham is left to work with the villagers. Fortunately, Nabulungi, beautiful and guileless daughter of the village head, believes that with things so bad their only hope is to follow these white boys to their land of peace and plenty, Salt Lake Citycharmingly pronounced in her African patois as "Sal Tlay Ka Siti."
Elder Price succumbs to a "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream"and if this is not the most irreverent production number in musical comedy history, don't ask me what isand returns to missionary headquarters. Amazed by Elder Cunningham's success, he decides he will go one step better and win over the General himself through his proclamation of faith, "I Believe." The General is not impressed, further deflating Elder Price. Pushed to take stock of their circumstances, Elders Price and Cunningham, and their fellow missionaries, come to a realization about truly making a difference that saves the day for them and keeps hope alive for the villagers.
At face value, this could be a touching tale, albeit with a strong whiff of white man's burden. The truth is that at its end, it is touchingand completely hilarious throughout as it tears into organized religion (Church of Latter Day Saints, yes, but really, the whole notion is up for grabs), the do-goodism of western missionaries and charitiesgloriously sent up in the anthem "I Am Africa" sung by the all-white missionary team as the villagers sit on the sidelines with their backs to the audienceand infantilized notions of African life. This is wickedly framed when village head Mafala introduces the missionaries to a local saying that makes all their hardships feel better: "Hasa Diga Eebowai", which Arnold assumes to be akin to The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata," or "Don't worry all the rest of your days." "Sort of like that," Mafala says but when pushed, he translates their saying into its utterly profane true meaning not a nice, pious homily the boys from Utah would like, but a much more honest response to a life besot with every manner of hardship and cruelty.
How all of this manages to be howlingly funny (I recognize that some community members might be unable to condone the humor herebut surprisingly few, I would wager) is the genius of book and score co-creators Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone, who have invented likable and funny characters and overlooked no opportunity to unleash jokes. Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, as co-directors, make every scene shine, moving non-stop so that we never quite catch our breath between one highlight and the next. Nicholaw's choreography matches the tone point by point, with wonderfully elaborate production numbers that poke fun at Broadway conventions, perhaps reaching its peak in "Turn It Off," a lesson in erasing unwanted thoughts and urges from our minds with dance routines that would be right at home in 42nd Street, even as it lampoons the form.
The cast is top drawer all around. Ryan Bondy is a wonderful Kevin Price, blinded by arrogance and the superficiality of his belief, while Cody Jamison Strand makes Arnold Cunningham a total nebbish with a heart of gold. They work extremely well together, bringing to mind the great classic comedy duos. Candace Quarrels is adorable as Nabulungi, and brings actual depth to her role as she strives for something to believe in. She also has the best voice in the show, soaring in both "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" and "Baptize Me," a wonderful duet with Strand's Elder Cunningham that sends up romantic R&B.
Daxton Bloomquist mints comic gems as mission leader Elder McKinley, whose dictum to "Turn it Off" is not doing much to hide his true leanings. Sterling Jarvis as village head Mafala and David Aron Damane as The General both are marvelous, and the entire ensemble shines, each member always in character, without ever a false note, step, or raised eyebrow.
The costumes, sets, lights, and sound are all perfectly pitched to support the story and embellish the ribaldry. Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and sound designer Brian Ronan gives us a run for our money during "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," and Scott Pask's set designs are full of witty touches, such as moving from Salt Lake City's Temple Square for the opening, to a distant view of that same place from the glass curtain wall of the airport in the next scene. Every bit of it works.
The Book of Mormon is a truly terrific musical. Lovers of the form owe it to themselves to see it, if not this time around, at one of the next visits this band of Mormon missionaries and African villagers will undoubtedly make to the Twin Cities. It defies notions of what can properly or politely be said and depicted on a Broadway stage, and for that reason runs the risk of offending some. But even at its most profane, the show is always good hearted. Its ability to present truths about the horrific plight of remote places on our planet, while entertaining and maintaining a sense of joy, makes The Book of Mormon an exemplar of the best that musical comedy can be.
The Book of Mormon runs through May 29, 2016, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $49.00 - $154.00. *A pre-show ticket lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets begins two and a half hours prior to each performance.* For ticket information call 612-373-5661 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit bookofmormonbroadway.com/tour.
Book, Music and Lyric: Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone; Director: Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker; Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw; Orchestrations: Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus; Music Director and Vocal Arrangements: Stephen Oremus; Set Design: Scott Pask; Costume Design: Ann Roth; Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Casting: Carrie Gardner, CSA; Music Coordinator: Michael Keller; Dance Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Associate Directors: Steve Bebout, Steve Sposito, and Jennifer Werner; Associate Choreographer: John MacInnis; General Manager: David Turner; Production Management: Aurora Productions.
Cast: Charnette Batey (ensemble), Daxton Bloomquist (Moroni, Elder McKinley), Ryan Bondy (Elder Price), JR Bruno (dance captain), Kevin Clay (ensemble), David Aron Damane (General), Jake Emmerling (ensemble), Eric Geil (ensemble), Jacob Haren (ensemble), Daryn Whitney Harrell (ensemble), Zach Hess (standby Elder Price), Antwaun Holley (ensemble), Eric Huffman (ensemble), Sterling Jarvis (Mafala), Kolby Kindle (ensemble), Will Lee-Williams (Guard, ensemble), Melvin Brandon Logan (Doctor, ensemble), Jevares Myrick (Assistant Dance Captain, ensemble), Monica Patton (Mrs. Brown, ensemble), CJ Pawlikowski (Cunningham's Dad, ensemble), Candace Quarrels (Nabulungi), Dereck Seay (Mormon, ensemble), Marcus Terrell Smith (Guard, ensemble), Cody Jamison Strand (Elder Cunningham), Nichole Turner (ensemble), Edward Watts (Missionary Voice, Price's Dad, Joseph Smith, Mission President).