Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review: 'The Book of Mormon' Believes at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad with the company.
Rema Webb. Andrew RAnnells, Josh Gad
(production photos credit: Joan Marcus)
I’m probably not much the wiser about members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after seeing ‘The Book of Mormon’ on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. It probably doesn't matter anyhow as probably many others will be unable to separate the jokes from elements the creators have pulled from official Mormon dogma in this irreverent and hilarious Tony winner for best musical.

Andrew Rannells
Story follows Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) as an unlikely pair of Mormon Missionaries sent to Uganda to find converts in a village beset by disease, poverty and a local warlord. They find the other missionaries in this part of Africa, led by Elder McKinley (Rory O’Malley), have been unsuccessful in the same quest. Along the way Price and Cunningham embark on their own journeys of discovery.

With a subject as sacred as religion, the musical is indeed one of the most apolitically correct ever to grace a Broadway stage. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of “South Park”, have added other targets to the mix from the female circumcision, AIDS and homosexuality. But with no pretensions whatsoever other than to entertain, they have crafted a musical that is currently the mega hit of the year and likely many more to come.

Parker and Stone with Robert Lopez (‘Avenue Q’) have composed some of the most sinfully tuneful songs lacking the grandiosity that plagues many musicals. Sixteen memorable songs brim and overflow with hilarity from the start with the introduction of the two elders in “Hello!’ reckoning the audience with experiences of white shirt, black slacks wearing missionaries knocking on their front doors and “Two by Two” as each missionary is assigned a destination to find converts, the songs are immediately accessible and catchy. Perhaps their ultimate feat was crafting a successful Broadway musical not adapted from another source material.

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad 
Josh Gad, Nikki M. James and Andrew Rannells
The musical is also an homage to Broadway. Rather than riduciling the medium, the show pays tribute to the likes of 'The Sound of Music,' 'Fiddler on the Roof,' 'The King and I' and of more recent vintage 'The Lion King.' The song “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (translated as “F**k You God) recalls “Hakuna Matata” from ‘Lion’ and used by the African villagers to make light of their downtrodden existence which the missionaries embrace until they learn its actual meaning.

Gad makes the dimwitted slob Cunningham into a lovable character. Like a teddy bear he completely charms the audience with his innocence in a role that could have easily fallen into an incessantly insufferable portrayal (think John Candy in “Planes, Trains and Automibiles”). He even maintains the humor of a running gag of mispronouncing the name of a young village woman named Nabulungi (Nikki M. James). Gad imbues sweetness when singing praises to his co-missionary in “I Am Here For You” then rocks the house later in act one with “Man Up” as he summons the courage to lead the Ugandan followers in the Mormon teachings.

Many critics have compared Rannells to a Ken Doll and it would be hard to differ. From a perfectly coiffed haircut, shiny bright teeth and exuberance it’s a role that that requires a transformation from egotistical follower to disullionsed disciple that builds to his definitive and inspirinig moment of self-affirmation in the song “I Believe” which Rannells performs with a sincere gusto.

Josh Gad (left) the company 
The company
 Among supporting players standouts include O’Malley who leads the missionaries in “Turn It Off” as he reveals the key to living the Mormon life is to repress any ungodly thoughts especially about those of the same sex. James as Nabulungi is the emotional heart of the musical. She gives an earnest performance as she finds faith in the Mormon religion and is most tender when expressing her dreams of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”.

Sets by Scott Pask and costumes by Ann Roth add their flair to the fun. Pask has deisigned a proscenium complete with rotating angel statue that recalls the most austere of Mormon temples and adds touches of a dead animal to a composite Disney-centric image of Orlando as backdrop for the proceedings. Beyond the shirts and slacks for the missionaries, Roth gives us a “Lion King” Rafiki look-a-like and pushes the limit in the devlish costumes in the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number.

Director-choreographer Casey Nicolaw expertly stages the entire endeavor from the precision choregraphy of the missionaries to the play-within-play retelling of the first Mormons that echoes “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from “The King and I”. Completely trusting the material he ably showcases the gags that permeate the production.

Some of those more devout of religion can say the production is sacrilegious. However the musical does contain themes of finding one's hopes and dreams which if not fully inspirational are still uplifting. Combined with its broad appeal, those lucky enough to snag a ticket to “The Book of the Mormon” will be spreading the word for a long time to come.

Josh Gad, Nikki M. James and Andrew Rannells

Where: Eugene O'Neill Theatre
Location: 230 West 49th Street, New York City
When: Tue-Thu 7pm; Fri & Sat 8pm; Sun 7pm; Sat & Sun 2pm
Running Time: 2 hrs 30 min
Ticket Prices: $69-$155
Opening: Mar 24, 2011 (previews from Feb 24, 2011)
Closing: Open Ended Run
Book Online:
Book by Phone: 1-800-432-7250
Cast Recording: The Book of Mormon - Original Broadway Cast


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