Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Theater Review - The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon
Music, Lyrics, and Book by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
Where: Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York, NY
When: Saturday, April 23, 2pm

Hugely popular (although now overshadowed by the mammoth hit that is Hamilton), The Book of Mormon is an incredibly hot ticket in New York City.  I figured eventually I'd get around to seeing it when its allure waned, but I assumed that would still be several years from now.  Fortunately, I was able to snag some tickets to the show for a fantastic price (free!) and I was able to see if all the fuss was truly warranted.  The long story short is that The Book of Mormon is undoubtedly an enjoyable and very funny two-and-a-half hours of theater.  I laughed...a lot...and I was never once bored.  That said, it lacks a little in the music department and since music is a huge part of musical theater it doesn't quite get the raves from me that others have heaped upon it.  Once again, it's still a fun piece, but it doesn't achieve greatness, rather falling in between good and very good on the ratings spectrum.

The premise of The Book of Mormon follows two Latter Day Saint Mormon missionaries as they head out on their first recruitment trip to try and convert people to their religion.  We meet the devout, yet somewhat haughty, Elder Kevin Price (played by Nic Rouleau) who has desperately prayed to be shipped to Orlando for his mission.  Unfortunately, while other new missionaries are sent to locales like France and Japan, Price gets chosen to go to Uganda...which doesn't sit too well with him.  Plus, he's saddled with the nerdy, seemingly unintelligent, and insecure Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) as his partner.  Trying to make the most of it, Price reluctantly starts his journey with Cunningham to Africa only to be told by the town leader (Daniel Breaker) and his daughter Nabulungi (Nikki Renée Daniels) that they won't be converting and Price and Cunningham better watch out for the warlord, General Butt-F***ing Naked, who wreaks havoc on their little village. read that right. General Butt-F***ing Naked.  That's what you get seeing as how The Book of Mormon is created by the minds behind South Park.  This isn't your typical Broadway show when it comes to humor.  It's decidedly R-rated, raunchy, and bawdy...and it's also funny.  Yes, some of the jokes fall flat (like that general's name) and some are too blatantly pushing the envelope, but the laughs keep coming fast enough that if one fails, there's another one right behind it.  Religion is certainly lambasted here and there were times where this church-going blogger found himself a tiny bit shocked, but I'm a little more open to seeing and hearing various attitudes about things -- that said, for those who like things on the tamer side, The Book of Mormon may not be your cup of tea.
(Nic Rouleau, center, as Elder Price)

The cast overall is pretty solid.  Nic Rouleau is just about perfect as the sincere and resolute Elder Price.  His optimistic attitude carries the audience along with him on his journey.  He's a great comedian, but also a stellar singer, shining on his big comedic ballad number "I Believe" which showcases both his ability to garner chuckles while belting out some big notes.  Nikki Renée Daniels brings a gentleness to the proceedings, but also croons with one heckuva voice on her two big numbers.  I'm still up in the air on Christopher John O'Neill's performance.  I wasn't disappointed in the slightest, but there were moments where I felt like there was a little bit of a lack of energy present in the bombastic and quirky character's demeanor.  That said, I've since listened to the cast recording of the show and I appreciate O'Neill's toning down of the character of Elder Cunningham as original portrayer Josh Gad made the character seem mentally challenged based on the recording.

And it's that recording that highlights the biggest problem with The Book of Mormon -- the songs.  None are particularly bad, but in the end, many of them sound too similar to one another, not being afforded the opportunity to really stand out.  Yes, there are a few great moments -- the opening "Hello" starts things off hilariously simple, the aforementioned "I Believe" is a great humorous ballad, "Baptize Me" is a fantastic duet with a crazily raunchy undercurrent -- but too often, the tunes are forgettable.  The ballads all sound too similar, the group numbers sung by the Ugandans sound too similar, the group numbers sung by the Mormons sound too similar -- there's a trend there.  There's a brilliance in those three stand-out numbers that I wish was carried to all the other songs.  Once again, music, lyric, and book writers Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone don't ever fail here, but I can't help but think the potential was there for something greater.  As an example, twice during the show, they name characters particular names just so they can rhyme them with something in a song -- that's a childish cop-out that someone just starting out in the business would do, not someone like Lopez who co-wrote the songs for the uproarious Avenue Q.  Then again, Lopez is the co-creator of the songs from Frozen which I thought were disappointingly ho-hum, so I'm not entirely surprised I was a little disappointed here.  Perhaps this ends up being a score that grows on me over time, however, so we'll see how I feel about it once I'm a few months removed.  Once again, I was never bored during the piece so that's certainly a credit to the songs, but I wanted a little more variety and oomph to some of the numbers.
(A good view of the simplicity of the set)

The Book of Mormon is certainly an enjoyable afternoon or evening at the theater, but I'm a bit surprised at its continued success as it's a show that not only plays up the raunch, but also tends to look like it's been done on the cheap (the costumes aren't particularly overwhelming; the set is very simple).  Or, perhaps rather than "on the cheap," I should say it lacks the "spectacle" Broadway audiences really seem to crave.  Still, The Book of Mormon is full of laughs -- not quite worth the exorbitant price tag of $180 for the cheap seats, but certainly worth a $100 price point if you can somehow find them.

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