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"The Book of Mormon" at the Fisher Theater Review

Review by Peter Schorn with Sue Summers

Phyre Hawkins, Mark Evans, Christopher John O'Neill
THE BOOK OF MORMON First National Tour  
© Joan Marcus, 2013

As a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone since South Park premiered in 1997, I have often wondered if they're as bewildered by their exponential success as their detractors must be. Initially dismissed as a pair of potty-mouthed slackers making juvenile and puerile entertainment for losers who were too dumb to understand Kevin Smith movies, they somehow managed to truck along producing...
  • 16 seasons of South Park with 237 episodes aired and a 17th season on the way.
  • A musical feature - South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut - that garnered a Best Song Oscar nomination for "Blame Canada."
  • Team America: World Police, a spoof of blockbuster action films, Hollywood liberal stupidity, and the War on Terror that initially pulled an NC-17 rating for an over-the-top scatological sex scene. Involving puppets. That's right, they made a movie with marionettes and songs like "America, F*ck Yeah!" And puppet sex.
But all of that couldn't have prepared anyone for the blockbuster success of The Book of Mormon, the winner of 9 Tony Awards including Best Musical, selling out on Broadway and now virtually sold-out for a two-week run of its first national tour at the Fisher Theater. (More on how to get the scarce ducats later.)

The plot is pretty simple: Freshly-minted Mormon missionaries are heading out for their assignments around the globe, but while other pairs get assigned to Norway, France and Japan, Elders Price (Mark Evans) and Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) get saddled with a posting in a benighted land of black people beset by poverty, disease, brutal warlords and hopelessness. No, not Detroit; Uganda. Elder Price is a square-jawed go-getter who'd hoped to be posted to Orlando. Elder Cunningham is a tubby, lonely fellow who's been the last picked for life in general and if he can get Price to be his friend, his total number of friends will be one. Mugged of their possessions by AK-47-toting thugs the moment they arrive (no really, it's not Detroit), they find that the missionaries who preceded them haven't converted a single soul to the Church of LDS. Will they save any souls, including theirs? (Spoiler alert: Somewhat.)

What's most stunning about the success of The Book of Mormon is that it's not just a little irreverent and ribald, but it is downright profane and brazen about its conduct and crowds are eating it up. While Trey and Matt have been so notorious for so long as envelope-pushing and shredding provocateur/pranksters it's hard to believe anyone could wander in off the street into a musical advertised as "from the creators of South Park" and be surprised that there are some naughty swear words coming from the stage, but with as many F-bombs as would be heard if Samuel L. Jackson hit his thumb with a hammer and a peppy African ditty cheerfully telling the Heavenly Father "FU", you'd think there'd be more shocked reactions. But, no, the audience roared with laughter - at least loud enough to drown out any gasps. (Wait until you here the full name of the character listed in the program merely as "General.")

The secret of The Book of Mormon's success is that rather than taking a dump on the conventions of Broadway musicals, Matt and Trey wholeheartedly embrace the form, teaming up with the composer of the tame-in-comparison-Sesame Street-on-crack Tony-winner Avenue Q, Robert Lopez, to assemble a rock-solid collection of show tunes that will immediately stick in your head. If you're a fan of Little Shop of Horrors (the musical, not the Roger Corman original) you'll be at home here. Parker/Stone/Lopez are also very canny in stylistically referencing familiar Disney cartoon musical tunes - the chieftain's daughter's plaintive ode "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" (say it fast) is the thematic analog for The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World" and "Hasa Diga Eebowai" is an obvious Lion King riff.

I'd given the original cast album a couple of spins to familiarize myself with the score but what that doesn't convey - and sadly neither do the two clips below - is the spectacular staging and exuberant choreography by co-director Casey Nicholaw (who also did Monty Python's Spamalot) that accompany them. There were a couple of costume and scenery changes that I'm still trying to figure out how they were done and many of the numbers fall into the "show-stopper" column. "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" with its dancing Starbucks cups and horned, winged Satan is particularly nuts. There's little indication that touring company audiences are getting a pared-down, half-arsed show.

The cast is uniformly strong including Samantha Marie Ware who plays Nabulungi, the sweet Ugandan daughter who dreams of escaping her squalor and finds what the Book offers appealing. (There's a catch about what she's being drawn to, though.) I especially want to commend Christopher John O'Neill because I went in dreading his character because it was originated on Broadway by the repulsive Josh Gad, the disgusting slob who is currently stinking up 1600 Penn as the President's moronic son. Thank Heavenly Father, O'Neill plays Elder Cunningham with the right blend of schlubby vulnerability so that we root for his underdog. It would be easy to play Cunningham too broadly and make his loser status deserved, but O'Neill nails it.

So, the show is a boisterous, brazen, ballsy musical romp filled with catchy songs, earnest performances, and spectacular staging that you should definitely see; what's the problem? Well, it's pretty much sold-out and the tickets that are available are breathtakingly pricey. If you cringe at the idea of paying $10 for a movie, you may want to have paramedics standing by when you price entry here. Fortunately, the producers are doing a ticket lottery for same-day rush seats. Here's how it works:
Entries will be accepted at the box office beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance; each person will print their name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for a limited number of tickets priced at $29 each. Only one entry is allowed per person. Cards are checked for duplication prior to drawing. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets. Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability. 
If you don't have a wealthy dowager aunt or rich significant other or make mad money yourself and can find a way to participate in this lottery, DO IT! It's worth the hassle if you can snag a ticket because The Book of Mormon genuinely lives up to the hype and acclaim. While it will probably get made into a movie somewhere down the line, film musicals these days are a crap shoot (the same director made Hairspray and Rock of Ages and is batting one-for-two), so it's best to see it the way it was intended, live on stage, surrounded by an audience in a state of shocked delight.

Here is a little taste of what awaits you - the opening number, "Hello," and the anthemic "I Believe" (which omits what happens in the end, because you can't show that on broadcast TV):