Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Parker and Stone created "South Park," so they know a thing or two about creating comedy that shocks, and Lopez co-wrote the music for Avenue Q as well as the film Frozen, so he is an adept musical composer. Together, this threesome has created a well-crafted musical with interesting characters, comical situations, and plenty of adult language. The problem in seeing this show after hearing so many good reviews and knowing that it has been called "vulgar" is that the end result may not live up to the initial expectations. And, while the New York Times called it "the best musical of this century," you have to remember that the show opened only 11 years into this century.
So, perhaps it's good to know what The Book of Mormon isn't. It isn't as crude as it has been hyped to be. While it does mock religion and the Mormon faith it isn't mean spirited toward them and portrays the members of the Mormon religion as real people, not caricatures. Is it the funniest musical ever? While there are numerous moments that are very funny, it isn't a laugh out loud show from start to finish. Does it have a great score that will have you humming the songs on your way home? There are definitely some toe-tapping numbers, but also a few that aren't that memorable. Is the story creatively well crafted and does it break new ground? While the plot can pretty much be described in one sentence it does have characters who grow and change along with a nice pay off, but it isn't a ground-breaking musical like Les Misérables.
But what The Book of Mormon does have is a bringing together of all the elements to make a sweet, charming musical that makes fun of organized religion and celebrates it at the same time. It also makes you laugh out loud several times along the way. Sure, there are some shocking lyrics and plenty of off-color language, but it is the sweet nature of the characters and the situations they are placed in that you'll remember equally with the more shocking adult moments.
The plot of the show centers on two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda. They find it's not so easy to convert the locals when they don't truly understand themselves or the main purpose of the religion they're preaching, and it's quickly clear that the place they've been sent to, Africa, is nothing like the magical world of The Lion King. While it is a fairly simple plot, there is a lot more that goes on, including characters that learn and grow, a very funny dream sequence that involves a journey to hell (a standard in the Parker/Stone world it seems), and some hilarious spoofs of and homages to other well-known musicals.
The three leads for this national tour are exceptional and the ensemble is given a lot to do. As it is on Broadway, the tour is well directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw, with Nicholaw's clever choreography a highlight of the many musical numbers, featuring an abundance of well-synchronized steps from the talented ensemble.
Billy Harrigan Tighe and A.J. Holmes are the two missionaries. Holmes is Elder Cunningham, a nerdy, goofy slacker who hasn't even read the actual "Book of Mormon" that he is supposed to be knowledgeable of, and he sometimes makes things up in order to be more likable. Tighe is the Ken-like, handsome and charming yet completely self-centered overachiever Elder Price, who basically thinks everything is about him. Together they make a good duo, one the leader, the other the follower, and they play off each other well. Tighe has an amazing voice and is given some of the show's best songs to show it off and Holmes is quite good in making the goofy character not only funny but loveable.
ASU graduate Alexandra Ncube plays Nabulungi, the daughter of the leader of the Ugandan village. Ncube has a phenomenal, clear voice and great stage presence with both of her co-stars as well as with Stanley Wayne Mathis who plays her father. As the only woman in the cast with an actual full-fledged character to play she has no problem holding her own and not getting lost amongst all of the men. It is nice to see a local actress delivering such a superb performance in a tour of a big, hit show. Brian Beach portrays Elder McKinley, who is already stationed in Uganda, and he is obviously struggling with his sexuality. Beach is given several moments to shine, including leading the show stopper "Turn It Off," and he ends up a crowd pleaser with his portrayal of this very likable character.
The direction of the show is a perfect blend of Nicholaw's Broadway background with Parker's somewhat juvenile humor. I'm not sure if it was Nicholaw or Parker (or maybe Stone or Lopez) who decided to add in so many references to and spoofs of other Broadway shows. From how the beginning of "I Believe" is very similar to the opening of "I Have Confidence" from The Sound of Music to the second act send-up of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" from The King and I, these are an added bonus to musical theatre fans, but don't detract from audience members who aren't familiar with the shows they are paying tribute to.
Creative components are on par with the Broadway production, with the entire Broadway creative team, the majority of whom won Tonys for their efforts, having recreated their designs. Scott Pask's fun and colorful scenic designs whisk us from Utah to Africa in seconds and include numerous set pieces that are multi-functional. The costumes from Ann Roth are a nice mix of the crisp white shirts for the young Mormon missionaries to the earth-tone prints of the African tribe members. Brian MacDevitt's lighting works well for the bright daylight scenes in Africa to the shadowy night time moments as well as the colorful and cartoony nightmare dream sequence. Brian Ronan's sound design provides clear vocals, especially in combination with Gammage's recently updated sound system.
The national tour of The Book of Mormon has a great cast and the musical has a funny book, a score with several show stopping numbers, is well directed and choreographed with imaginative set pieces, and leaves you with a smile on your face. For a musical that attempts to mock and celebrate religion at the same time The Book of Mormon succeeds, and actually accomplishes the task of mocking something better than most episodes of "South Park," as it does so with a huge dose of sincerity. While there is plenty of vulgarity and a couple of shocking moments, it is also an extremely enjoyable musical with a huge amount of heart. The end result is a funny, touching, and memorable show.
The Book of Mormon runs through November 8th, 2015 at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. Additional tour dates can be found at bookofmormonbroadway.com/tour.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone