Theater Review: ‘The Book of Mormon’ seeks to convert Chicago
By Bill Beard
I must admit that I entered Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre to see the national touring production of the monumental hit musical, The Book of Mormon, with some preordained expectations, perhaps even prejudices. Having been well acquainted and personally familiar with the Latter-day Saint religion most of my life — and on the other hand, completely unimpressed, even somewhat annoyed by the particular type of blatant humor in the for-some-reason popular South Park — I was determined to remain open-minded, even receptive.
I had listened to the CD, I had heard about the vulgarity and rudeness of the dialogue, but I was determined to remain objective. Well, it was rude. It was vulgar. It was downright obscene. But gosh! It was hilarious!
However, it is not for just everyone; although you’d never know it … (good orchestra seats are scarce and can run as much as $415 each). [Even online, on press opening night there was one seat left in Row F of the orchestra available at a cool $700!] Shall I say, “It’s worth it”? Sure! Why not? The Book of Mormon is a new showbiz animal.
What the promos promise is a crazy musical spoof on Utah’s Mormonism and religion in general, and some wild distortions of Uganda’s native sex laws and practices, all in the inimitable style of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and award-winner Robert Lopez.
The plot: A group of young Mormon Elders go on a “mission” to convert Africans to the church, and there they find the natives living in conditions of poverty, famine and AIDS, and ruled by a despotic warlord chieftain obsessed with female circumcision and murder. When their pious conversion attempts fail, one of their missionaries tries his own improvisation versions of the scriptures and in the end brings a different kind of peace and happiness to the good people of Uganda. Admittedly a strange combination of subject matter, but simple enough in its story. Remember: this is a musical … a funny musical comedy!
But this is actually a many-layered work of art. Yes, I said art! It manages to explore several controversial subjects in multiple creative forms at the same time; subjects like religion (or, rather, the seeking of religious fervor and fulfillment and having to settle for what you get), racial egalitarianism (or, rather, the pious and impious attempt thereof), social impropriety (or, rather, the crudity and vulgarity in language and thought), and of course, sex (no “or, rather,” necessary).
All these are dealt with, most ingeniously, through creative forms like music (some great melodies and harmonies), religious history (viewed from some oblique, marvelously warped, but firmly rooted-in-fact, angle), visual artistry (with terrific scenery, costumes, lighting and special effects), and, of course, comedy (of an absolutely unique blend).
That comedy blend includes the verbal (fast, furious, almost poetic), the visual (an opening scene of perfectly balanced cartoonish exposition), lots of tongue-in-cheek satire (constantly pushing the limits but never quite resorting to caricature) and, throughout the entire two-and-a-half hours, naturally flowing bits of language and subject matter that could only be described as lewd, crude and downright rude. And yes! It is still hilarious!
Sounds rather like this show is complex, right? Not really. Perhaps its most winning appeal lies in the simple, complete and unapologetic blatancy of the whole production.
As for the cast of this national tour, I suspect it is better in some ways than the original New York group. The original leads, Andrew Rannells as Elder Price and Josh Gad as Elder Cunningham, have had tremendous reviews and both are nominated for Tony Awards. But they could not possibly have been any better than the current Chicago production stars, Nic Rouleau as Price and Ben Platt as Cunningham.
Rouleau actually comes directly from the NYC production, where he had been playing Elder Price, and he is perfect. But Platt comes in to replace the popular Gad, who has used his roly-poly physique and cherubic, cheeky face to portray any number of broad farcical types (perfect for Barfy in Spelling Bee, predictable in TV’s new 1600). Broadway raved about his performance as Elder Cunningham.
But Chicago’s Ben Platt has no need for any physicality to be funny. His is a far more intuitive sense of wit, a creative understanding of humor, the very essence of true comedic instinct. He is one of the most natural comic actors I’ve ever seen. He brings an authenticity to the overall experience. The show, in spite of the abundant use of crude language and blatant sexual references, actually has a very special sort of beauty, an underlying innocence, a strange sort of breath of fresh air. This applies to the whole evening, this strange new “work of art.” Some credit for the new “difference” in the Chicago production has been attributed to a somewhat modified approach by the new co-director/choreographer, Casey Nicholaw. There is now a certain overriding naïve simplicity throughout. And I believe that Ben Platt’s talented work as Elder Cunningham contributes greatly. His performance alone is worth the price of the ticket and the drive into Chicago.
Musical theater lovers will delight also in the sly references to past Broadway shows, as well as the second-act highlight spoof, in which the “now converted” natives give a show for the visiting High Priesthood church leaders who have come from Utah to celebrate the Uganda success. It is The Book of Mormon’s hilarious equivalent of The King and I’s wonderful “Small House of Uncle Tom.” It is far more successful than the other big production number, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” (except for the very funny dancing cups of Starbucks coffee!).
OK! So now, after all this verbiage, all this complicated analysis, all of my “lists” and italics and [parentheses], let me put it simply: “If you can handle some lewd and crude stuff along with an abundance of hilarious fun and terrific musical theater, then definitely do not pass up a chance to see The Book of Mormon!”
Bank of America Theatre is at 16 W. Monroe, Chicago. The show has just been extended until September; but arrange tickets far in advance! Ticket prices range from $45 to $200. Call 1-800-282-8495 for information; or online at ticketmaster.com.
From the Jan. 23-29, 2013, issue
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