Elders Price and Cunningham have arrived in beautiful Costa Mesa, California with their offer of a “free book written by Jesus” as the Segerstrom Center For The Arts presents the Orange County Premiere of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone’s absolutely brilliant, super-smash Broadway hit The Book Of Mormon.
The winner of 9 Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Orchestrations, and Best Scenic, Lighting, and Sound Designs, all of which arrive intact at the Segerstrom), The Book Of Mormon pokes (or makes, depending on your POV) fun of the titular “free book” and those whose faith in it takes them (or at least 50% of them) on two-year message-spreading missions to romantic destinations like Norway, France, Japan, and … Uganda.
That’s right. While their soon-to-be fellow missionaries get assigned to the aforementioned lands of “gnomes and trolls,” “pastries and turtlenecks,” and “soy sauce and Mothra,” Elders Price (David Larsen) and Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand) find themselves headed off to the land of famine, poverty, AIDS and female genital mutilation.
If none of this sounds like the makings of a Broadway musical, let alone one of the past ten years’ two or three best and biggest smashes, it probably wouldn’t be so without Parker and Stone, the irreverent geniuses behind South Park, and Lopez, the talented tunesmith whose musical gifts won him both the Tony and the Grammy (for Avenue Q) and more recently the Oscar (for Frozen’s “Let It Go”).
Not only have Parker, Lopez, and Stone managed to spoof both the fourth largest Christian denomination in the United States and one of Africa’s less appealing destinations, they have done so in ways that both shock (“I can’t believe they said that!”) and delight (“I can’t believe they said that!”), and might even win a convert or two. Otherwise, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints probably wouldn’t be taking out program ads to promote their own B Of M with the tagline, “the book is always better.”
Perhaps most importantly, The Book Of Mormon gets us to caring about its cast of characters, both American and Ugandan, and seeing them not as stereotypes but as real human beings. No wonder audiences keep coming back for more.
Odd Couple missionaries Price and Cunningham couldn’t be a more mismatched pair from the get-go. The former is the all-American son any Mormon mom would praise Heavenly Father for, while the latter is more likely to conjure up memories of Chris Farley and John Belushi than a young Brad Pitt, and more likely too to “make things up” if it means winning converts, inventing Book Of Mormon quotes like, “‘And lo, the Lord said to the Nephites, ‘I know you’re really depressed, what with all your … AIDS and everything, but there’s an answer in Christ.’”
Then again, when you’re greeted upon arrival in Africa by soldiers who rob you at gunpoint, after which you learn that the village you’ve been sent to proselytize is under the thumb of a brutal, tyrannical chieftain and that the local philosophy (“Hasa diga, Eebowai”) has the villagers giving God the finger as a way of keeping their spirits up, a little “exaggeration” might be forgiven if it brings the natives to God.
Fortunately, Elders Price and Cunningham do actually come to know the locals as more than just Ugandans they’ve been sent to convert, most particularly the lovely Nabulungi (Denée Benton in the role that won Nikki M. James the Tony), whose dreams of the faraway land of Utah inspire the exquisite “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” (Say it fast a few times and you’ll get it.)
Already serving in the Ugandan village where our heroes have been sent is District Leader (and fellow missionary) Elder McKinley (Pierce Cassedy), whose Utah boy-next-door-ness masks a young man’s attempts to deal with same-sex longings in time-tested Mormon fashion, which he explains in the aptly-titled “Turn It Off”: “Boys should be with girls. That’s Heavenly Father’s plan. So if you ever feel you’d rather be with a man—turn it off!” (Who knew it was so simple!)
Also figuring prominently in Book Of Mormon are Nabulungi’s father Mafala (James Vincent Meredith), blood-thirsty village ruler General Butt-Fucking Naked (David Aron Damane), and three or four post-missionary-age Mormons (Christopher Shyer in multiple roles).
Just about everything works to perfection in The Book Of Mormon, beginning with Casey Nicholaw and Parker’s Tony-winning direction, as inspired a joint effort as Broadway has seen in decades.
Then there’s Parker, Lopez, and Stone’s Tony-winning book, which gives us a pair of lead characters we quickly embrace despite a tendency towards egotism (Elder Price’s) and prevarication (Elder Cunningham’s), a coming-of-age tale that is universal despite its specificity, and a tribute to the power of friendship and love in a world too often without one or the other.
Lopez, and Stone’s Tony-winning songs are as original as they are intentionally derivative in a way that perhaps only true Broadway buffs will appreciate but which everyone can enjoy, from the echoes of Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked in “You And Me (But Mostly Me)” to the R-rated spoofing of “Hakuna Matata” in “Hasa Diga Eebowai” to quite possibly the best of all, a scatological “Joseph Smith American Moses” that takes an iconic song-and-native-dance sequence from “The King And I” and runs wild-and-crazy with it to audience shock and delight.
Perhaps never before has a Broadway score contained melodies as tear-inducingly gorgeous as those in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” “I Believe,” “Baptize Me,” and “I Am Africa,” with lyrics that veer in an instant from deeply moving (“I believe that God has a plan for all of us” and “We are the dream of Nelson Mandela”) and to outrageously hilarious (“I believe that plan has me getting my own planet” and “We are a monkey with a banana”) in an instant.
And has there ever been choreography that provokes more delighted laughs and cheers than the Tony-nominated dance steps conceived by Nicholaw of The Drowsy Chaperone and Monty Python’s Spamalot fame? From 42nd Street taps (“Turn It Off”) to Saturday Night Fever disco (“Man Up”) to Lion King tribal moves (“Hasa Diga Eebowai”) to a take-off on every fantasy dream sequence ever staged (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”), Nicholaw eminently deserved his Tony nomination. (Perhaps not surprisingly, he lost to Kathleen Marshall, whose Anything Goes dazzled Segerstrom audiences earlier this season.)
In fact, the only thing I’d change about The Book Of Mormon is the incessant vulgarity emerging from its African characters’ mouths, a case of much too much where considerably less would have done the trick—and still gotten laughs. But I quibble.
With the entire Broadway creative team recreating their 2011 magic for this 2nd US National Tour, which started off in 2012 as a Chicago “sit-down,” Southern California audiences are guaranteed an “Original Broadway” experience with the added benefit of a pair of leads I’ve heard spoken of as the best Price and Cunningham ever. Has any Elder Price seemed as fresh-off-the-bicycle authentic as the absolutely splendiferous Larsen or any Elder Cunningham been as huggably lovable as the simply sensational Strand? I somehow doubt it. (And they both sing like anybody’s business!)
Benton’s Nabulungi (whose name gets massacred in ever more hilarious ways by Elder Cunningham) is so African-girl-next-door enchanting and Benton’s vocals so pop soprano glorious that had she originated the role, it’s the soon-to-graduate Carnegie Mellon musical theater BFA major who’d have the Tony on her shelf.
Cassedy’s would-be “ex-gay” Elder McKinley couldn’t be more scene-stealingly appealing, with Meredith’s warmly paternal Mafala Hatimbi, Damane’s marvelously menacing General, and Shyer’s niftily rendered Mormon “grown-ups” all providing expert support.
Jake Emmerling, Bradley D. Gale, Jeff Heimbrock, Eric Huffman, Corey Hummerston, John Pinto Jr., and Hardy Weaver not only delight as two Mormon boys each, they execute more costume changes (including some gender-bending frocks) than any ensemble since The Producers, The Book Of Mormon offering them about as fine a showcase as any fresh-out-of-college triple-threat could possibly ask for, with Pinto (last seen at the Segerstrom in South Pacific) scoring bonus points for the evening’s most spectacular high notes.
Recent UCI grad (and Cerritos native) Anthony C. Chatmon II shows off comedic chops and Broadway-caliber vocals as Dr. “Maggots In My Scrotum,” with equally sensational support provided by the rest of the “Ugandan” contingent: Tallia Brinson, Mike Evariste, Eric Jackson, Will Lee-Williams, Paris Alexander Nesbitt, Monica Patton, Cessalee Stovall, and Nichole Turner.
Scott Pask won a deserved Tony for his scenic design, one which features quite possibly the most godforsaken African village to ever fill a Broadway stage. Ann Roth’s fabulously eclectic costumes may have lost out in the Tony race, but it was to Priscilla Queen Of The Desert. (Need I say more?) Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design, Brian Ronan’s sound design, and Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus’s orchestrations all won Book Of Mormon Tonys, and deservedly so.
Providing expert musical direction at the Segerstrom Center is Susan Draus, who conducts from the pit and plays keyboards as well.
Though not appearing onstage at the performance reviewed, Ryan Bondy and Kyle Selig receive program credit as Elder Price standbys and Nyk Bielak and Rob Colletti as Elder Cunningham standbys, and Gilbert L. Bailey II, Melanie Brezill, dance captain Eric Giancola, Emily Jenda, Nick Laughlin, and assitant dance captain Travis Robertson as swings.
Glynn David Turner is production stage manager.
As is true with the still-touring Wicked, The Lion King, and (next up at the Segerstrom) Jersey Boys, you can expect it to be years and years and years before any regional theater gets the rights to The Book Of Mormon, which means that if you don’t see its National Tour now, forget about seeing it again until another tour stop in Southern California at some unspecified future date, either that or plan a trip to Broadway.
In other words, count yourself lucky if you get to see the one-and-only Book Of Mormon at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts this week or next—and savor every single moment of the journey. I certainly did!
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
May 14, 2014
Photos: Joan Marcus