I thought of just doing a one phrase review of The Book of Mormon: go and see it yesterday. That’s all I would really need to write about this multi-Tony award winning giant that is making its summer home at the Kennedy Center. There are enough reviews and praise for this show that I don’t really need to belabor my feelings about the show. The show centers around two young Mormon missionaries, one an overachiever and the other with an over active imagination. They are sent to Africa and are faced with challenges they weren’t expecting in the form of a crisis of faith and becoming more than an underachiever. The show hits you with crude and shocking language and topics that have probably never made their way to a Broadway stage…at least in the form of a major musical. But pull back the F words and C words, and the shocking societal issues being dealt with by the Ugandans, like warlords, female circumcision and raping of babies as a cure for AIDS, and you get a show that has a very sweet heart. I know you can’t just slide past the shocking language and content, but when you do get past them you get a show about two characters put together in unfamiliar surroundings and how they respond to those circumstances and come through it at the end. And that is the real heart of the show, two friends struggling to find themselves. It is also what makes this show more than some of the shock moments and will keep it around Broadway for a very long time. If it were really just the language and shocking content that attracted the audience it would just fizzle away once the audience was no longer shocked by the material.
The show does a similar thing in dealing with the Mormon religion. If the show was just about making fun of The Book of Mormon it would become stale with time, once those jokes were made. However, the creators of the show have created such a layered show that they can take aim at the Mormon religion and yet at the same time create an acceptance of religion and faith. They accomplished this by having the characters ultimately believe in something that isn’t The Book of Mormon, that the audience realizes is completely absurd and ridiculous, and yet has made the Ugandans lives better. They have created a a show where the foul language and content gets your attention, but the underlying substance draws you to the characters and their story and will keep audiences coming back again and again.
This doesn’t even get to the catchy numbers from beginning to end in this incredibly well paced two and a half hour production. For the experienced musical goer you will hear homages to Wicked, Hairspray, The Lion King, The Sound of Music and The King and I, amongst others. If you aren’t well versed it doesn’t matter. The songs themselves stand on their own and the live performance of the numbers take the recorded versions to the next level. I wish I could pick out a favorite and point to it as the number that brings down the house, but there really isn’t a dud anywhere to be found. I particularly enjoyed watching the reactions of Elder Price in several of the numbers to the things going on during the song. Specifically in “Hassa Digga Eebowai” when he is given the English translation of the phrase, or in “Turn it off” after the lights come back on for the second time. Or watch Elder Cunningham in the background of “Man Up”, which contains some great little comic moments. But with each number from beginning to end you will be laughing along.
I was fortunate enough to see The Book of Mormon on Broadway with the orginial cast. And one of the things you always wonder about is whether a show is going to have the same stuff when the original cast is no longer involved. Beyond re-visiting the show I was curious to see how the new leads deal with the spotlight. Was this show going to suffer the same slow and unexpected death The Producers suffered when Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick left. Gladly, I can say that this show was more than just the original cast. In fact, the character of Elder Cunningham was played differently. Josh Gad, who originated the role, was a much more slovenly character as compared to Christopher John O’Neill’s Cunningham. There wasn’t the disheveled look, it was more an awkward nerdy guy with a bit more innocence. It was interesting to see this different take on the character and that it still worked so well within the show. As the character of Elder Price is the straight man in the comedic duo there probably can’t be as much variance in the performance, but Mark Evans adeptly filled the shoes of Andrew Rannels as Elder Price.
My one issue has nothing to do with the show, which is an A+ event. I even sorta I hate bringing it up, but the reviews of this show by many of the local DC online theater websites continue to show how poor they actually are in serving the theater going community of DC. These outlets typically hand out knee jerk positive reviews to almost everything, including some of the worst productions I have seen in the DC area. My theory has always been that they are more interested in protecting their free tickets to shows from these theatre companies than giving an honest evaluation of the show they witnessed. Now comes “The Book of Mormon” to Washington and it appears that many of these reviewers have decided to take a stand and use this widely praised show as their moment to shine and to be the “one” reviewer to take a stand against this monolith of a show. They’ve decided to stand up and be heard that they were the one individual who actually didn’t like this show, that they were offended by the content, or that it was just plain over-rated. All they did is re-confirm my belief about what those online sources are about, and it isn’t about serving the theater audience community in Washington, DC. I don’t need to reiterate those worthless reviews, but my favorite was where one reviewer asserted that the creators of the show had gone out of their way to keep the crude nature of the show secret. All I can guess is that the reviewer is referring to the producers of the show having gone out of their way protecting their material from appearing illegally on youtube. Because anyone who has any interest in this show has read reviews or heard the soundtrack and knows the show contains crude language and touches on topics not typically addressed in a Broadway musical. Oh, and of course, that doesn’t even include that super secret profile of the show and its content that the reviewer must have missed and was on the little watched television show “60 Minutes”. It is unfortunate that these reviewers continue to decide that they aren’t going to serve the community they ostensibly are intending to serve. But when they go to the bar and proudly say they were the only “one” to write a negative review of this show they can just look over their shoulder and find some other “only ones” and clink glasses with those who took the same sad tact. All the while thousands of people nightly walk out of the Kennedy Center experiencing a show those reviewers apparently didn’t want to see.