The Book of Mormon has been a gargantuan hit since it opened on Broadway in early 2011. Now, the show has arrived at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles as part of its national tour, and it's thankfully as wild and wonderful as one had hoped.
Irreverent and yet strangely respectful of its characters, the musical is the brainchild of Avenue Q lyricist Robert Lopez and South Park creators Trey Parker/Matt Stone. Anyone who's seen an episode of the long-running potty-mouthed cartoon on Comedy Central knows Parker and Stone commonly walk (and fall over) a fine line between satirical and offensive. Here, they manage to juggle an extraordinary balance of X-rated songs, belly laughs, a morality play, a touching buddy tale, and it all manages to work.
As their fans also know, Stone and Parker have a deep admiration and knowledge of Broadway musicals. So it's not surprising that the score quotes from such diverse classics as Cabaret, The Sound Of Music, and Little Shop of Horrors. Structurally, they spoof both the "Quintet" from West Side Story and The King And I's "Small House of Uncle Thomas."
More importantly, the rousing score is full of memorable, show-stopping numbers like the act one finale, "Man Up" and the toe-tapping extravaganza "Turn It Off," alongside such heartfelt songs as "Salt Lay Ka Siti."
As Elder Price, the All-American missionary who winds up, much to his dismay, in Uganda, Broadway veteran Gavin Creel brings his aw-shucks gumption and natural charm to a character that is essentially self-promoting and immature.
As his "companion," the socially inept Elder Cunningham, Jared Gertner shows off a hyena laugh and a bear hug that could strangle Smokey, making him overpoweringly lovable.
Blessed with bright eyes, a wide, toothy smile, and a towering voice, Samantha Marie Ware is the altruistic center of the play as Nabulungi, the hopeful Uganadan girl dreaming of a better life for her and her fellow villagers, while Grey Henson is delightful as the barely closeted Elder McKinley, whose inner "gay" is ready to explode at any moment.
And in the very difficult role of the homicidal, misogynistic General, Derrick Williams manages to be cruelly menacing and yet absurdly funny. Watch how his eyes bug out and his body tenses up when he is almost overpowered by Elder Price's love in "I Believe." It's silent comedy genius.
Co-director Casey Nicholaw's choreography, with his fast-moving gavottes, makes the cast look like marionettes. Brian MacDevitt's lighting design -- which both evokes the Latter Day Saints Crystal Cathedral with its kaleidoscopic patterns on the ground and a stairway-to-heaven glow surrounding the actors -- is among the standout technical elements.
Unquestionably, a show like The Book of Mormon will be bound to offend some theatergoers, but -- as its nine Tony Awards and rapt audience approval goes to show -- it's definitely a musical for the new millennium.
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