Eighteen months ago, The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway, thus knocking out the rumor that the Broadway musical was a dead form, and that we were all doomed to have nothing but revivals, pop tune collections, and rock ‘n roll imitations of what used to be a pure American art form.
Not much has happened in those 18 months to further the demise of that rumor, though Newsies, Once, and even the recent entry Chaplin have tried hard, but coming nowhere near the impact of Mormon, the irreverent romp concocted for our delight by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone.
I thought I’d drop in on the show which I haven’t seen since the early weeks of its run, to see if it held up as material, and to discover if the production was continuing to be fresh and not have any sign of longrunitis, which is a common disease when shows hit their second and subsequent years. Another reason for revisiting was that the two leading players had been replaced by compete newcomers, while holding on to virtually all of its other principals.
The newcomers are Nick Rouleau and Cale Krise, two beginners who’ve been asked to carry a show which is the hit of the decade. They play the Elders Price and Cunningham, the two young Mormons who are sent on a mission to find and convert the people of Uganda to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Other principals, including Nikki James, Rory O’Malley, Michael Potts and Bryan Tyree Henry and most of the ensemble have remained as well.
Somebody’s been doing a lot of rehearsing with this company, because it is in tip-top condition. I was seated closer than I like to be, in the second row, but one advantage of that is one can easily detect if anyone onstage is marking his performance, if anyone is walking through the show, giving a carbon copy of the work he did last night, or even last week or last month.
But no, it’s fresh as a daisy and continues to poke fun at just about everyone from Mormons to Jews to all other religions and though its humor is sometimes outrageous and shocking, its heart beating below is always heard if you take the trouble to listen.
You have to listen hard because Lopez’ rollicking score bounces along all evening. From the start, “Hello” is an opening number that is choreographed by Casey Nicholaw within an inch of its life. Not only does it dazzle with its dance, it introduces us to all the Elders, including the two central characters, with a lively tune and lyrics that get laughs on their own. When the story takes the two hapless Elders to Uganda (“Where IS it?” asks one of them, while the other one bemoans the fact that he didn’t get to go to his favorite place in the world — Orlando.) we get to meet an assortment of oddballs from a very different culture, people called Nabulungi, Mafala Matimbi and The General. “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is how these Ugandans explain themselves to the new recruits. It manages to offend anyone who believes in God, but it is performed with such innocence, it also brings waves of laughter (the good kind).
You can be sure that Price and Cunningham manage, in the course of two zippy acts, to convert everyone, but when their superiors come to check on them, everything goes wrong and they are all sent home in disgrace. But fear not, there is a switch and the conclusion gives everyone a chance to sing “Hello” again, this time not only by the Mormon missionaries but by the Ugandans as well, and the last we see of everyone, they are dancing up a storm, once again under the inventive direction of Casey Nicholaw.
The leading roles are demanding and they have already brought much attention to their creators, Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells. Rannells has already filmed the series “The New Normal” and is clearly on his way to a major career as a comic leading man, a young combination of Danny Kaye, Dick Van Dyke and Tommy Tune. Gad is about to start a series for NBC called “1600 Penn” on which he will be executive producer and on which he will star. Clearly these two actors, neophytes themselves 18 months ago, have delivered the goods, bringing great work to their two demanding roles. Nic Rouleau and Cale Krise are worthy replacements and they prove once again that “America’s Got Talent”. The supporting cast, after 18 months, are Opening Night fresh and all seem to be having the time of their young lives in this still rousing and original musical blast.
As so often happens, the one demerit I must bestow is to whoever is in charge of maintaining the sound levels created by the sound designer, Brian Ronan. The only area in which the show seems sloppy is in the amplification. Lively, yes – but ear piercing and unnecessarily so. The Eugene O’Neill is a small house for a musical, and enhancement of sound might be welcome, but distortion of it is not. I know this can be corrected, for there are many musicals on Broadway which can be proud of their sound design. The biggest hit in town should certainly be one of them. Mr. Producer, give us a break and check out those little knobs on the sound consoles. Then turn them down just a tad. You’re going to be around for years with this lovely show; you’ve kept every other element fresh so please, I urge you, do a sound check.
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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