Ring-a-ding! Smart, witty ‘Book of Mormon’ delivers on every level
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org December 19, 2012 10:54PM
Nic Rouleau (front, center) and Ben Platt (far right) join their fellow elders in a scene from "The Book of Mormon" at the Bank of America Theatre. | © Joan Marcus 2012
‘The Book of mormon’
When: Through June 2, 2013
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Updated: December 24, 2012 4:08PM
So, let’s get right down to it: Does “The Book of Mormon” live up to all the hype? You bet it does. And more.
And just so there is no confusion here, I am not talking about that sacred text of the Latter-Day Saint movement, the American-bred religion born out of mysterious quasi-Biblical sources and delivered in western New York in the early 19th century by way of visionary leader Joseph Smith. No, I am referring, of course, to that satirical culture clash of a 2011 Tony Award-winning musical — the show with more than a touch of genius that opened in its Chicago edition Wednesday night at the Bank of America Theatre. Yes, that show, which is a superb duplicate of its Broadway original (in some ways even better), that emerged from the gold-plated, compulsively volcanic imaginations of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (those “South Park” guys), the ingenious composer Robert Lopez (the “Avenue Q” guy) and that high-spirited director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (of “Spamalot” and “Drowsy Chaperone” renown).
And who better to have joined subversive forces to bring to life such a naughty, giddily subversive, just-short-of-heretical tale? It would be difficult to imagine. Just witness how they’ve unspooled a story of faith, race and pop mythmaking by setting things in motion via a mismatched pair of squeaky clean, wet-behind-the-ears missionaries from Salt Lake City: The self-satisfied, Disney-dreaming Elder Kevin Price (Nic Rouleau, with teeth like giant Chiclets, this blonde Romneyesque actor is perfection in the role he previously played on Broadway), and Elder Arnold Cunningham (the uncannily brilliant Ben Platt, who easily steals the show as the sweetly nerdy “follower” and “Star Wars” aficionado who not only has a knack for assimilation but suddenly is the one who “mans up” when they are dropped into a remote village in Uganda).
Will the inhabitants of this chaotic African nation — a place where violent warlords, mosquitoes, AIDS, male genital-infesting maggots and female genital mutilation are all part of the fabric of life — give themselves over to the “life-changing Book,” the ritual of baptism, and the possibility of an Edenic-like existence in Utah (or, as the phonetically fractured song title would have it, a place called “Sal-Tlay-Ka-Siti”)? Or, will they hold on to tradition?
And how will the missionaries themselves be “converted,” especially given the charm, beauty and newfound optimism of Nabulungi (the beguiling Syesha Mercado, who plays the crucial role of the village patriarch’s enchanting daughter who yearns for a better life and gives herself over to “belief”)?
Audiences raised on a steady diet of satire will hardly need conversion to laugh themselves sick at this musical in which nothing is sacred except, interestingly enough, the loss of innocence. And the show’s glorious score, with its zany beauty and wit, winningly counterpoints every subversive beat in the story — from the opening pageant conjuring the roots of the Mormon church (which comes with a knowing wink at “Jesus Christ Superstar”), to the inspired chirpy canon of doorbell-ringing in “Hello!” (the missionaries’ calling card song), to the comic, anthemic “I Believe,” to the genuinely touching, hilariously double entendre “Baptize Me.” And then there is “Joseph Smith American Moses” — a knockout 21st century twist on the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” ballet sequence in “The King and I” — that gets right to the comic heart of cultural adaptation.
Be advised: This is an adult show. The tyrannical Ugandan warlord, General Butt-F...... Naked (David Aron Damane), is an Idi Amin-like monster, whose name is given a quite literal rendering at one point. And there is more.
The show’s ensemble is full of stars, with Steppenwolf actor James Vincent Meredith most recognizable as the village patriarch who is Nabulungi’s father.
Nicholaw and Park see to it that the show moves with a seamlessness, guilelessness and rip-roaring speed that renders the satirical sting potent yet never bitterly poisonous. And the designers — Scott Pask (giver of world-shifting sets), Ann Roth (costumes, whose “wrong fit” for Platt’s pants is alone worth an award) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting) — shrewdly give us three worlds, one of them not of this Earth.
The Mormon church’s official response to this show was to say: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon... will change people’s lives forever.” It looks a whole lot like “forever” might also apply to the run of this show.