Let’s just get this out of the way. If you are offended by cursing, genital mutilation, sodomy jokes, or are religiously sensitive, you should not see this show. (Although the Mormon Church took out three full-page color ads in the program with clever tags like “You’ve seen the play, now read the book!” Ten points to them.) Also, if you don’t know what “South Park” is, you probably should just find a nice Spencer Tracy movie to watch on AMC.
And now on with the show.
“The Book of Mormon” tour is sweeping the nation (as national tours are wont to do). When the show reached the San Francisco Bay Area, tickets for every performance sold out within an hour of the pre-sale. Yes, folks, the pre-sale. Meaning before tickets were released to the public, they were gone. Here in Seattle, tickets were also hard to come by — the penultimate night of the run was packed to the rafters.
“The Book of Mormon” follows the Odd Couple of young Mormon missionaries, Elder Kevin Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham. Elder Price, a boy as golden as the plates he worships, has dreams of being stationed in sunny Orlando, Florida for his mission, but is instead placed in a war-torn village in Uganda with the dunce of the century as his partner. While trying to get its baptism quota up, the plucky group of Mormons find an ally in the chieftain’s beautiful daughter Nabulungi, who wants to escape her village before the evil war lord general forces circumcision on all the women.
Much in the same way that “Avenue Q” beautifully corrupted Sesame Street, what is most brilliant about “The Book of Mormon” is that it mixes classic musical sensibility with a viciously naughty sense of humor. The nods to “Sound of Music” and “The King and I” are delightful to discover in the midst of ridiculous set-ups. Fabulous top hat and cane dance numbers, tap routines, and glittery vests abound. There’s also something very special about listening to “Lion King”-esque African harmonies and beats while learning the true meaning of “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” (Hint: it’s not “no worries for the rest of your days.”) “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez, the genius behind “Avenue Q,” own a well-deserved Tony Award.
The pointed, but funny digs at the White Savior Complex are expertly woven in, sometimes in such rapid succession that you miss a few while laughing uncomfortably at the first. But don’t worry, in case you weren’t paying attention, there’s the song “I Am Africa” filled with lyric after shaming lyric about the folly of flying into a foreign culture and becoming the de facto spokesperson for Their Cause overnight.
If the show has a weakness, it’s that the book is not as strong as the musical numbers. Which brings us to the main issue with the cast that came through Seattle.
By the end of the clumsy opening number “Hello” (multiple actors couldn’t find their light, the vocals were generally weak or overpowered by the orchestra), it was clear that the real star of the show was the score and the performers were merely along for the ride. There were very few in the national tour cast who rose to the occasion.
Here’s the thing. When folks are paying top dollar for barely-acquired tickets to the most anticipated Broadway tour in a decade, the cast should sparkle and the backdrops should be ironed. Expecting every actor on stage, especially the leads for heaven’s sakes, to sing in harmony and hold his own during a solo is not a lot to ask. In fact, the audience shouldn’t have to ask for that. That should be a given. This is a Broadway tour. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, the Broadway cast album far outshines the touring cast.
“The Book of Mormon” threatens to be one of those shows that is amazing no matter where you see it — two other examples include “The Producers” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Small theatre companies can pull off these risque musicals without Broadway-caliber talent and provide a fine, fine evening of entertainment because the show is so strong.
But people don’t have to step over their own mother to obtain a $100 ticket to sit 30 rows back and watch the Townsville Players sing “Comedy Tonight.” Unfortunately, avoiding discussion of the tickets’ mighty cost is impossible in light of the sub-par performances, and while painful and unpopular to admit, it’s hard to make the case that this touring production is worth it.
That being said, the numbers “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Turn It Off” (a song about banishing any lingering doubts or fears by simply turning off your feelings) truly came to life onstage. Mark Evans as “Elder Price” and Samantha Marie Ware as “Nabulungi” were excellent singers and truly embodied the over-blown earnesty that makes the show so darn enjoyable. Grey Henson is also good as “Elder McKinley,” a boy just barely able to keep from exploding out of the closet leading a rainbow parade. The ensemble of African villagers deserve high praise for their hilariously misinformed rendition of the Book of Mormon performed for church elders, a la “The House of Uncle Thomas.”
If “The Book of Mormon” comes to your city, unless the cast has been switched out by then, it might be worth it to save some money and just buy the album. Yes, it is a great show with clever, catchy music and a winky message about how all religion is made up, but if it makes people happy, then who cares if it sounds ridiculous. (Granted, this message is recycled from the Mormon episode of “South Park,” but it’s a good one nonetheless.) However, paying out the nose for mediocre talent tempers the experience.
“But Jasmine,” you say cheekily, “if it makes people happy, then maybe having lackluster talent doesn’t matter?” For me, that is more offensive than the profuse use of the f-bomb.