By Richard Ades
Are you dying to see The Book of Mormon? If so, you’re probably wondering whether it’s worth catching the show in New York considering the fact that it’s due to arrive in Columbus about a year from now.
Seeing a show on Broadway is certainly more expensive, even without the added cost of getting there and back. But then, Broadway shows have definite advantages over touring shows.
First, the cast is tried and true. Touring casts can be great, but only if the director can find actors as perfectly suited to their roles as their Great White Way counterparts.
Second, even the largest Broadway theaters are far more intimate than the Ohio or the Palace, where big touring shows usually end up in Columbus. Generally speaking, that means there are no bad seats in the house.
Unless, that is, you get stuck behind a tall individual with an extremely large noggin. That’s what happened when I saw The Book of Mormon last weekend at New York’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Since even a $169 ticket doesn’t give you the right to ask a neighbor to remove his head, I had to stretch and twist my neck in an attempt to see this Tony-winning song-joke-and-dance fest. As a result, it took me a while to warm up to the show.
However, I soon joined the rest of the crowd in laughing at what Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone had wrought.
If you’ve seen the signature song I Believe performed on TV, you know the musical finds plenty of humor at the expense of what comedian Bill Maher has called the world’s silliest religion. At its heart, though, is the relationship between two young men who are assigned to be partners throughout their two years of compulsory missionary work.
Elder Kevin Price is highly thought of by his teachers—and even more highly thought of by himself. Elder Arnold Cunningham is his exact opposite, a friendless screw-up who readily admits his shortcomings.
“I lie a lot,” he tells Kevin at their first meeting.
But as chagrined as Kevin is by his assigned partner, he soon finds an even greater source of disappointment. Though he has visions of being sent to Disney-perfect Orlando, he and Arnold end up in a Ugandan village where the problems include poverty, ignorance, AIDS and a warlord who threatens to “circumcise” the women.
On Broadway, Matt Doyle struts and sings competently as the self-obsessed Kevin, but the real star is Jon Bass as the needy, truth-challenged Arnold. A delightfully child-like Nikki M. James eventually grabs a big share of the spotlight as Nabulungi, daughter of the village leader. Like Doyle, Bass and the rest of the cast, she sings beautifully, especially on the Act 1 solo Sal Tlay Ka Siti.
Given co-creators Parker and Stone’s connections to South Park, it’s not surprising that much of the humor is derived from extreme crassness—one villager repeatedly complains that he has maggots in his scrotum, and cussing is rampant. Indeed, the chief villain goes by the descriptive name General Butt-Fucking Naked. What’s surprising is how much sweetness and heart are mixed in with the gross-outs.
Parker co-directs the show with choreographer Casey Nicholaw, whose witty dance routines constitute a big part of its appeal. Scott Pask’s scenery and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design combine to great effect in several delirious production numbers, including one set in a Mormon vision of hell.
If you need an excuse to go to New York, seeing The Book of Mormon is a pretty good one. Or you can head to Chicago, which also has a production.
Otherwise, just hold tight. The touring show will arrive at the Ohio Theatre next May.
The Book of Mormon is being presented at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St., New York City. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). For reservations, call 1-800-432-7250 or visit telecharge.com.
Postscript: Why did that guy selling Book of Mormon memorabilia at Sunday’s performance seem so familiar? Because he was Paul Moon, a Colorado native and Ohio State grad who appeared in Columbus shows such as Short North Stage’s production of The Irish Curse (my choice for the best local comedy of 2012). Now carving out a career in New York, Moon has a role in My Big Gay Italian Wedding, an off-Broadway musical comedy that’s temporarily on hiatus. If you want to see the Columbus ex-pat onstage, performances begin again June 22 at St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th St. For ticket information, visit bigitalianwedding.com or telecharge.com.