Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of THE BOOK OF MORMON at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
Through February 19th
Mirth is God’s medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it. – Henry Ward Beecher
There’s a first time for everything, and now I’ve done it, I’ve seen it, or to be more precise, I’ve experienced it – The Book of Mormon at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. It is the show I’d been wanting to catch on Broadway but just hadn’t had the chance. What I can say in a nutshell, is that it far exceeded my expectations, and like other firsts, it will not be my last because I could see it again and again.
Even if I’d tried, I’d never have been able to keep track of how many times I must have said – out loud – “Oh. My. God!” as my hand flew up to clasp my mouth in shock, awe, and utter disbelief. And it’s fitting that I’d have been using that particular exclamation (however lame it may be and no disrespect to the Almighty intended) during a production about this particular subject – because if you’ve been living under a rock for the past six years, yes, it actually is about Mormons and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Back by popular demand, The Book of Mormon stopped in Hartford for the second time in three years during what now is its second national tour. It is a ribald, sacrilegious, anally-fixated show that’s a mere giggle or guffaw away from some serious intercostal throbbing (your “hurts-to-laugh” rib muscles). What unfolded before me – literally from the first non-stop moment to the last – was an irresistibly irreverent, riotously creative, masterfully ingenious epic of a stage musical.
Winner of nine Tony awards and countless others, The Book of Mormon is brilliant – written by three matchless creatives – none other than the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez, co-creator of Avenue Q and songwriter from Disney’s Frozen. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall during what must have been an extraordinary artistic process. Checking their judgy prefrontal cortexes at the door and with inhibitions lowered, they would have allowed all of their spontaneous, unfiltered, inventive, and imaginative ideas to engulf the room like the unstoppable rush of water from a broken dam.
So you take a group of recent missionary grads at the Utah LDS training center, pair them up and send them across the globe to spread the word of the Church – “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matt. 28: 19–20). But like any good bromance, you’ve got to have tension; and in this case, arrogant overachiever Elder Price (Gabe Gibbons) and nebbishy, needy, Elder Cunningham (Conner Pierson), who also is a pathological liar, are set to fly to the least desirable locale; Uganda, not Orlando, the place of Price’s dreams. They find themselves up against everything from malicious persecution by a crazed warlord named, get this – General Butt-F**king Naked (Oge Agulué) – as well as AIDS, famine and poverty, maggots, and genital mutilation. Not only that, but most of the villagers are not as happy to receive them as they’d have expected – that is, except for Nabulungi (Leanne Robinson), daughter of the village chief, Mafala Hatimbi (Sterling Jarvis).
Defeated, Price and Cunningham hook up with a group of other failed missionaries who together try to put their heads together to figure out how to make their bleak situation work. After tall tales are told, feelings are hurt, coffee is consumed (a Mormon no-no), and countless baptisms are performed, all punctuated by both some predictable as well as wholly unexpected visits by everyone from Darth Vader, Yoda, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and Jeffrey Dahmer, what happens in Uganda doesn’t stay in Uganda, especially when the Mission President comes to call. To say that this production anything but a hedonistic hoot and a thundering success is truly an egregious understatement.
In addition to the spectacular writing, what also sets this work ablaze is the incredible strength of its ENTIRE cast. The amount of talent on the stage was mind-blowing. Gibbons is terrific as the narcissistically nauseating and pretentious wannabe hero; Pierson nails it as the endearing screw-up with a heart of gold. The dazzling Robinson and brawny Jarvis as daughter and father, respectively, both have wonderful comedic timing. Agulué as the general is alternately threatening and hilarious (who wouldn’t be with that name?). Other notables are Elder McKinley played by PJ Adzima (also as Moroni) who is perfectly and excessively flamboyant; and the Doctor played by Johnny Brantley III (also Ensemble) will kill you with his oft-delivered pat line about his particular medical affliction (no spoilers here). Shout-outs to Tyler Leahy as Mormon and Ensemble; Ron Bohmer as Missionary Voice, Price’s Dad, and Joseph Smith; CJ Pawlikowski as Cunningham’s Dad and Ensemble; Melanie Brezill as Mrs. Brown and Ensemble; Will Lee-Williams as Guard and Ensemble; Tyrone L. Robinson as Guard and Ensemble; Bryce Charles, Jake Emmerling, Kenny Francoeur (also Dance Captain), John Garry, Eric Geil, Keisha Gilles, Jacob Haren, Daryn Whitney Harrell, Kolby Kindle, and Leonard E. Sullivan all as Ensemble; and Kristin Jeter as Assistant Dance Captain.
In addition to the stellar cast, choreography is utterly amazing and is credited to Casey Nicholaw, who also directed with Trey Parker. Kudos to Scott Pask for inventive scenic design, Ann Roth for fabulous costume design, and Stephen Oremus for music supervision and vocal arrangements. To Brian MacDevitt for lighting design; Brian Ronan for sound design; Josh Marquette for hair design; Larry Hochman and Oremus for orchestrations; Glen Kelly for dance music arrangements; Alan Bukowiecki for musical direction; and Michael Keller for music coordination. A huge hand to The Book of Mormon orchestra – Bukowiecki as conductor and on keyboard 1; Daniel Klintworth as associate conductor and on keyboard 2; Tim Morey on guitar; Marc Hogan on bass; Jeff MacPherson on drums; and Randy Coen as keyboard programmer. And finally, to anyone else I’ve left out inadvertently or for brevity.
You may be asking, how does this all add up to the makings of an uproariously funny musical? All I can say resoundingly, is that it does, and you’ll have to see it to believe it. But a word of caution – it’s not exactly for the faint of heart. If you can’t appreciate the bawdy humor, don’t go. If you think maybe it crosses (more than a few) lines, it does. Is it over the top? – Yes, in every absurd yet phenomenal way possible. But it is edgy, full of inexhaustible energy, and it is altogether engaging. But it offends – and few are excluded. In my opinion 9for what it’s worth), so what? It’s equal opportunity offensiveness. Haters are going to hate – and there have been some; however, I personally won’t apologize for laughing at the saucy humor, which at times (mostly) is juvenile, scatological, and crass. But for a few brief hours, it was such fun to strip away those social and PC constrictions we often impose on ourselves and just allow marvelous, mind-boggling amusement to wash over me. I truly didn’t want it to end.
What if you took Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Karl Marx and locked them in a room together and wouldn’t let them out until they collaborated on a play? You would surely have the irreverent, the sacrilegious, the risqué – no downright offensive – play, The Book of Mormon. Notwithstanding those epithets, you also would end up with an audacious, bold, side-splittingly, hilarious tour de force. If Karl Marx was right and religion is the opium of the people, then The Book of Mormon is the drug of choice for theatregoers. You will leave the theatre with a natural high and a smile that spreads from ear to ear. And you’ll be thinking that this could be one of the best plays you have ever seen – and it probably is.
Instead of Brooks, Python, and Marx, you have South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez the co-composer of the equally irreverent Avenue Q. Add to that The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and the fact that you are watching a national tour with an insanely talented cast and crew and you have nothing short of a Broadway-quality experience. And there is a good reason why The Book of Mormon won nine Tony Awards and countless other awards – it was, in the vernacular of the show, f*****g awesome.
From a marketing standpoint, the producers set the stage for the later incredible success of Hamilton by charging outrageous prices and creating a viral ad campaign that packed the house on a nightly basis and had the backers paid off within nine months of opening. Of course, Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Presidency certainly facilitated sales at the time as well.
The play follows the exploits of two Mormon missionaries, Elders Price (a selfish, narcissist) and Elder Cunningham (an insecure and needy loner) who are sent to a remote part of Uganda, Africa. Needless to say, extreme culture shock is the least of the maladies the duo are forced to deal with in their attempt to convert a tribe of avowed atheists to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (By the way, the tribe’s motto and favorite ditty is “hasa diga eebowai” – you’ll have to look that one up for I am fearful of burning in Hell for all eternity if I print its literal translation.)
There was not one flaw, one misstep, nor one weak link in the entire production. Both acts were seamless and thoroughly engaging: definitely no anti-heine itch cream needed.
In breaking down the elements, let’s start with the amazingly talented cast. Gabe Gibbs (Elder Price) and Conner Pierson (Elder Cunningham) pulled off a comedy team worthy of such yesteryear duos as Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis. Their timing was impeccable as was their chemistry. Leanne Robinson (Nabulungi) made the perfect third wheel to the comedy duo and played the village leader’s daughter with a perfect mix of wide-eyed charming innocence and a sexy vivaciousness. PJ Adzima was knock-down-drag-out hilarious as the sexually repressed Elder McKinley (he reminded me so much of Neil Patrick Harris). Oge Agulué (no kidding, that’s his real name) kicked ass (pun intended) as General Butt F***ing Naked (no kidding, that’s his character’s name). Sterling Jarvis was spot on as Mafala, the village leader and father of Namba Jamba – no, I mean – Nabulungi. Ron Bohmer was a quadruple threat as the Mission President, Joseph Smith (who is probably rolling in his grave), Price’s Dad, and the Missionary Voice. Will Lee-Williams and Tyrone L. Robinson took no prisoners as the Guards. Shout-outs to the rest of the principals: Melanie Brezill and Tyler Leahy (Mormon). Last, but certainly not least, I needed a doctor from laughing so hard at Johnny Brantley III’s portrayal of the village doctor who had “maggots in his scrotum” (they were selling men’s underwear with the quote sprawled over the fly in the lobby; I opted instead for the scarf with “Hello” written on it).
My bad for not mentioning the wonderful and brilliant Ensemble individually. The truth is, without them, you would not have the show.
The direction was f***ing phenomenal by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker. Casey Nicholaw gets another “f” accolade for the show-stopping choreography.
If truth be told, The Book of Mormon is the theatre’s guiltiest of pleasures. How can you poke fun at organized religion, third-world countries’ problems, AIDS, starvation, and disease and get away with it? The Book of Mormon does it all with classless verve and panache, ultimately reminding us that having a sense of humor and being able to laugh at ourselves is ennobling and not degrading.