THE BOOK OF MORMON
(Second National Tour)
Book, Lyrics, and Music by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone
AT&T Performing Arts Center
Directed by Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw
Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Scenic Design by Scott Pask
Costume Design by Ann Roth
Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design by Brian Ronan
Musical Direction/Vocal Arrangements by Stephen Oremus
Orchestra conducted by Alan Bukowiecki
Hair Design by Josh Marquette
Make up Design by Randy Houston Mercer
Gabe Gibbs (Elder Price)
Cody Jamison Strand (Elder Cunningham)
Candace Quarrels (Nabulungi)
Daxton Bloomquist (Elder McKinley)
Sterling Jarvis (Mafala Hatimbi)
Ron Bohmer (Missionary Training Center Voice/Price's Dad/Joseph Smith/Mission President)
Oge Agulue (General)
Johnny Brantley III (Doctor/Ensemble)
Monica A.I. Patton (Mrs. Brown/Ensemble)
CJ Pawlikowski (Cunningham’s Dad/Ensemble)
Ensemble: Christopher Brasfield, Melanie Brezill, Bryce Charles, Kevin Clay, Jake Emmerling,
John Garry, Eric Geil, Keisha Gilles, Jacob Haren, Kolby Kindle, Will Lee-Williams,
Melvin Brandon Logan, Tyrone L. Robinson, Dereck Seay, Marcus Terrell Smith.
Reviewed Performance: 12/20/2016
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Here is twist on a well-known Vaudeville joke; “Two part time practicing Catholics walk into a musical about Mormons...” all that is missing from this chestnut joke is the polar bear and the Rabbi.
The two part time practicing Catholics were my guest and myself. Last night was my second visit into the idiosyncratic world of Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez’s insane, vulgar, unconventional, and hysterical world that is their musical The Book of Mormon (BOM). This is one of those rare musicals that is not based on a movie, TV show, or book. Nor was it constructed around the musical catalogue of a famous recording artist or composer. Nope it is completely original. The musical opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway in March of 2011 and has been selling out ever since with so far 2,406 performances under its black tie and white shirt-and counting. It is such a smash hit that it has firmly held its place as the #1 show on the great white way. The only musical since 2011 that has competed (and won several times) on snatching that coveted slot has been a rap musical about some politician named Hamilton. BOM walked away with nine Tony awards, including Best musical.
Both Parker and Stone had no prior Broadway musical theater experience, other than attending other musicals and owning cast recordings. But these two did create the long running TV hit South Park on Comedy Central. They also wrote and directed such films as South Park: Bigger, Better and Uncut, Orgazmo, BASEketball, and Team America. Their TV and film work contained songs that were penned by these two best friends since they met in College. If you ever watched even one episode of their animated TV hit or films, then you know the razor sharp wit and comedy that these two can create.
Robert Lopez however already had Broadway pedigree who (along with Jeff Marx) co-wrote the music and lyrics for the critically acclaimed Avenue Q, which I had the great fortune to see on Broadway with the original cast. Ave Q earned Lopez his first Tony awards. Your young daughters I’m sure have drilled into your brain the score from Disney’s Frozen, which Lopez (along with his wife) composed. Fun fact, Lopez is a member of a club that has very few and oh so lucky individuals-it’s called EGOT. This is a person who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award.
In BOM, Lopez, Parker and Stone has their audience follow two new Mormon missionaries- Elder Price and Elder Cunningham – as they learn of their assignments on where they are going to preach and spread the gospel of John Smith and the Mormon faith for two solid straight years. Handsome and loved by all his missionary brothers, the golden child Elder Price hopes he gets assigned to Orlando Florida. While Elder Cunningham, who has horrible social skills, insecure as hell, and lies like crazy just hopes to find a friend. Both are paired up and assigned to Uganda, Africa. And the insane hilarity begins.
BOM has returned for the third time to the Winpsear Opera house. I reviewed the national tour when they first came to Dallas back in 2013. When a big hit show stays on the road non-stop, producers tend to start cutting costs by slashing sets, costumes, the number of performers, plus all the bells and whistles. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a perfect example. The first national tour had towering moving set pieces and detailed costumes. By its fourth tour the actual sets became back drops, the cast slashed by half, and the costumes looked like they came from a rental house. Thankfully the current tour of BOM is intact as when it first came here. From the sets, costumes, and lighting, to the full size cast.
To the naked eye of the everyday theater goer they may not notice this, but we actors can detect this in seconds! And that is when an actor is phoning it in with their performance. They have glassy, lifeless eyes and move around stage like a Disney theme park robot, barely putting any energy in the choreography or acting craft. Well this current BOM tour is devoid of any of that. The entire company on Tuesday night was bouncing off the wall with hyper, frenzied energy. They devoured the book and score to bring out the best work they could in comedy, vocals, and acting. The ensembles of the missionaries and the Uganda villagers danced with high octane energy that never once subsided. You felt as though this was their opening night. That is rare coming from a tour that has been on the road for several years.
So let’s get out of the way the one major problem that did pop up last night, which was diction. For some strange reason it was extremely difficult to understand what they were saying, both in lyrics and in the book scenes. Many of the musical numbers are big up-tempo numbers with rapid pace and an endless stream of lyrics flying out into the audience. But the execution of the lyrics were swallowed up, mushed up, or mumbled. It was quite difficult to figure out what was being said. Same goes in several book scenes. This caused the audience to not hear the jokes or punch lines both in song and book. Now this did not happen all night, but it did creep up in and out all evening long. But this is an easy fix.
Gabe Gibbs portrays Elder Price, the popular cool cat in the Mormon missionary. His all American as apple pie adorable features fits like a glove over Gibb’s creation of Price. His comedic delivery is outstanding and very defined. He is able to find solid jokes that are beyond the punchline. He is the first I’ve seen in this role that has added so much physical comedy that had the audience roaring in laughter. His facial expressions were the perfect button to his craft in comedy. He did have the best diction from the principals as well. Gibbs has a muscular tenor vocal that brought finesse to his plethora of songs within the score. Such as “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”, "All American Prophet", and his 11:00 O’clock belter, “I Believe”. It’s difficult to find leading men that truly understand the art of comedy both in physical and delivery, but Gibbs is one of those rare baubles that does-and like that sparkling gem he blinds the audience with his talents and vibrant stage presence.
As Elder Cunningham, Cody Jamison Strand not only chews the scenery, but as well as the lights, the orchestra, right down to the cushion seats in the house. Right out of the gate in his first song, “Hello” he joins his Mormon bros, where this comedic firestorm grasps hold of the audience’s attention and for the next two hours never lets go. His energy is frenzy, hyper, and full tilt that I’m sure he refuels himself with barrels of Honey Boo Boo’s Go-Go juice and pixie sticks in the wings. He is a short, cherub actor, but his performance makes him look like a towering giant next to his fellow cast mates. Strand has a very distinctive speaking voice that is an amalgamation of Harvey Fierstein, Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick, and even Cartman from South Park. Match that with his phenomenal comedic timing, pace, and delivery Strand had the audience crossing their legs from not peeing on themselves due to laughing so hard by Strand’s performance. His physical comedy would make Robin Williams and Mel Brooks jealous. The guy knows how to genuflect to garner laughs! There were times though where it was difficult to understand what Strand was saying, both in the book scenes and the score’s lyrics. After seeing BOM now three times, I see now that it is a running joke for Elder Cunningham to butcher Nabulungi’s name. I have noticed that each actor who portrayed Cunningham ad-libbed different names that “might” sound like Nabulungi’s name. Strand had his own arsenal of pop culture references from Jon Bon Jovi to Nicki Minaj. My personal favorite that Strand blurted out was Nancy Pelosi (California’s US representative and Minority Leader of the House of Representatives). Strand is indeed the scene stealer of this national tour!
Candace Quarrels is Nabulungi; a Uganda native that thinks that if you use a typewriter it can send text messages. Quarrels is physically a beautiful young lady with soft brown eyes. She has one of the best ballads within the score titled, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”. Within her lithe frame a booming, soulful, rich soprano voice pours out. She also earns major kudos in matching Strand’s comedic craft in their duet, “Baptize Me". She is the lone female lead in an ocean of men, but she holds her own and meets them all on an equal playing field. She delivers an outstanding performance.
Daxton Bloomquist’s portrayal of Elder McKinley is so side splitting hysterical that I so wished the character had more songs and book scenes. That’s how amazing Bloomquist is as the leader of the missionaries that are all currently assigned to Uganda. Bloomquist’s McKinley is also someone that you can hear “Clang Clang Clang went the Trolley” every time you are near him (if you catch my drift). Bloomquist leads the ensemble in the show stopping number “Turn It Off”. Bloomquist just goes full out in this crowd pleasing tap dance number. We are talking full bevel and jazz hands! Bloomquist has dynamic stage presence that immediately makes your eyes go to him. His comedic talents were sublime and had the audience guffawing for prolonged moments he had to “hold” until the laughter finally subsided. He is first rate and dazzling, right down to his fuchsia sequined vest!
Also delivering smashing, comedic performances that had the audience howling in laughter include Sterling Jarvis as Mafala Hatimbi (leader of his village and father to Nabulungi); Oge Agulue as the General who has a very distinctive name, and returning back to the tour Ron Bohmer as John Smith among other roles within the musical. Bohmer (A Broadway veteran) was in the first national tour of BOM when it came to Dallas; he left the tour not too long ago, but was asked to return to the tour. Full disclosure: Dallas-Fort Worth theatre folk will remember Bohmer as he was a guest star at the annual Column Awards Gala. It should be noted that after being on the road with this musical, leaving, then returning, Bohmer did not display any hints of phoning it in within his performance. He was as funny and full of energy as he was in 2013. I even caught some new bits he has brought into the role!
A huge round of applause must be bestowed on the two ensembles. The men who make up the Missionary ensemble who sing and tap “Turn It Off” and the ensemble that make up the villagers from Uganda who do the musical number. “Joseph Smith American Moses”. The latter is a laugh riot number that reminds you of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from The King and I. These two ensembles sing with gusto, execute the choreography with flawless results, and bring down the house in thunderous laughter with their comedic talents!
On a side note: The book by Lopez, Parker, and Stone is built for ad-libs, new bits, and updating references to pop culture. It’s a dream book for any comedic actor. At Tuesday’s performance there were fresh and new ad libs and physical comedic bits that were hilarious. So I was kinda surprised that there was no reference to a certain orange hued man with tiny hands who with Russia’s assistance stole- I MEAN won a certain current election. Because of the past work by these three master talents, I thought for sure “he” would have made an appearance in the second act number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”. Just a thought for future productions.
We are in the midst of the holidays. Endless shopping, standing in long lines at the Post Office or the mall. The never ending holiday office parties with heaps of foods and eggnog, traffic from hell, flights canceled right and left, and visits from relatives that hold you prisoner as they tell you how talented and funny is their little girl Suzy and her batons. With all that theater audiences have only Christmas themed shows to sit through. I don’t understand how someone can sit through one more performance of Scrooge or A Christmas Carol. I’d rather be stuck in an elevator with Anthony Weiner and Kellyanne Conway than to sit through one more Christmas Carol production.
So I have the PERFECT solution to not only let all the stress and headaches of the holiday season float away, but also skip Suzy’s production of A Christmas Carol! And that is go see Book of Mormon at the Winspear NOW! It has no sugar coated blandness of those overly done holiday shows. Book of Mormon is over two hours of nonstop laughter that will leave your face hurting, your throat and sides sore-all due to laughing. This is the PERFECT holiday getaway! So as the song goes, I leave you with some lyrics from the big show stopping number “I Believe”. If you laugh as you read these lyrics- then this is the type of show you will LOVE. If you are offended, well I think there is a 3:00 matinee of A Christmas Carol somewhere.
“I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob! I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.”
-Elder Price, “I Believe”.
THE BOOK OF MORMON
AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House
Playing through December 31, 2016
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