News Column

The many graces of 'Book of Mormon'

September 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 06--I believe in "The Book of Mormon," and I believe you will, too.

The juggernaut Broadway smash, making its Houston debut with the polished, exuberant touring company at Hobby Center, is original, ingenious, frequently hilarious and sometimes rather touching -- so phenomenally entertaining that it sweeps aside certain reservations, which I'll get to later.

The show is recognized as Broadway's most outrageously irreverent musical yet -- no surprise, with its book, music and lyrics written by "South Park" bad boys Trey Parker and Matt Stone in collaboration with Robert Lopez, co-creator of "Avenue Q," a previous pinnacle of musical cheekiness. As in that case, fortunately, there's more than just the nose-thumbing iconoclasm and outrageous shock effects.

"The Book of Mormon" uses the misadventures of two clueless, well-meaning young missionaries in disaster-ravaged Uganda to satirize religious belief, as well as the musical genre. One of its best notions is making the two leads odd-couple opposites: Elder Price, the born leader and paragon of perfection in looks, manner and behavior, while his mission partner, Elder Cunningham, is the klutzy, insecure, perpetual screw-up and hapless follower. Faced with the disillusioning realities of the villagers' lives -- poverty, famine, AIDS and the assaults of a brutal warlord -- Price has a crisis of faith and deserts. Cunningham perseveres to win the necessary conversions -- by mesmerizing the villagers with his own spurious, improvised version of Mormon lore (since he never read the book.)

Though the relentless mockery gets a tad heavy-handed at times, the saving grace is that it always registers as good-humored, high-spirited and affectionate. At the close, darned if the show doesn't come down pretty solidly in support of believing, whatever one may choose and however preposterous, so long as it has a positive effect.

The shrewd construction is apparent from the opening number, the irresistible "Hello," a jolly roundelay of doorbells and beaming pitches promoting the book and faith guaranteed to change lives -- the same song returning at the close, with a neat twist, to bring the show full circle. In between are many examples of the authors' hewing to classic models: the heroine's wanting song, dreaming of a better life in "Sal Tlay Ka Siti"; the perky cheer-up ditty "Turn It Off" that becomes a tap extravaganza; the Act 1 finale incorporating reprises of key themes to show each lead at a turning point; the show-within-the-show set piece, the villagers' "Joseph Smith, American Moses," specifically patterned on the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet in "The King and I," as one culture's retelling of another culture's lore.

Funny as it is, "The Book of Mormon" also is a shade overrated -- not the greatest 21st-century musical to date, as some have proclaimed it. With so much of the score geared for mocking laughter -- as in several songs in the "Up With People" sugar-pop vein -- the results inevitably are funny but not musically memorable. Production numbers such as "Making Things Up" and "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" succeed in zaniness but mostly repeat a far-fetched premise, relying on wild-and-crazy stage business. Likewise, the figures out of a Mormon history diorama, camping and boogieing, get too cartoonish and silly.

And as one who's always found bathroom-type humor obvious, sophomoric and not all that funny, I feel the show overplays that hand. Even realizing "South Park" fans may adore it chiefly for the crass and crude elements, a show with so much genuine cleverness needn't lean so heavily on cheap laughs.

I like "The Book of Mormon" best in its genuinely sweet moments, the aforementioned "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" and Cunningham's recurring "Tomorrow Is a Latter Day" lullaby to Price, and the more subtly satiric turns, as when the lily-white Mormon chorus earnestly chants "I Am Africa" -- a peak of genuinely inspired absurdity.

The brisk direction by Parker and Casey Nicholaw keeps the show zipping along with buoyant energy and fluidity, dotted with nifty visual jokes. Nicholaw also devised the sprightly, playful, manic choreography.

In Mark Evans' intensely driven Price and Christopher John O'Neill's affably goofy Cunningham, the tour boasts leads as good as Broadway originals Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad. Evans expresses even the most outlandish beliefs with utmost sincerity and conviction, and sells his numbers with his supple, ranging voice. Amid the laughter, he makes his character's journey meaningful.

O'Neill tones down Cunningham's abrasiveness, the loose-cannon wildness and slovenly aspects. He doesn't stint on the crazy energy and flights of fancy, but the subtler shadings make for a more engaging characterization, maintained in his sturdy singing.

Samantha Marie Ware radiates innocence and belief as Nabalungi, vulnerable and eloquent in song. There's fine support from Stanley Wayne Mathis as Nabulungi's protective father, Grey Henson as mission leader Elder McKinley, and the ensemble works heroically throughout.

Scott Pask carries the show's comic viewpoint into his inventive settings, as Ann Roth's costumes reflect the pristine uniformity of the missionaries and the dishevelment of the bedraggled villagers.

"The Book of Mormon" likely will make its share of converts in Houston -- if not to Mormonism, then to the ranks of musical fans.

___

(c)2013 the Houston Chronicle

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