Missionaries have close encounter of the Merman kind

By Richard Ades

The Book of Merman is to The Book of Mormon what a Pekingese is to a bulldog: It’s smaller, fluffier and far less funny.

To be fair, The Book of Merman isn’t entirely fluffy, as it does have a message about being true to oneself. But you’ll see that coming so far in advance that it doesn’t have much impact.

Written by Leo Schwartz, the musical starts out with a clever premise. It’s about a pair of Mormon missionaries who come face to face with a woman who claims to be someone she clearly isn’t. Or is she?

We first meet Elders Shumway and Braithwaite (Nick Hardin and T. Johnpaul Adams) as they’re bickering their way from one suburban doorbell to the next while trying to avoid their territorial rivals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The bickering stems from the fact that Braithwaite is far more into their two-year mission than Shumway, who seems so averse to all things Mormon that he can’t even stand Salt Lake City.

Then they end up at the door of a woman who calls herself Ethel Merman (Gina Handy). Shumway, a fan of Broadway in general and Merman in particular, is overcome with joy. He immediately believes she’s who she says she is, even though the real Ethel Merman reportedly died in 1984. In no time, he’s chatting with her about his own dreams of becoming a Broadway composer and star.

For his part, Braithwaite doesn’t even know who Merman was—or is. He just wants to give this odd woman the word of Mormon so they can get on with their mission.

Working under Bryan Adam’s direction and Bryan Babcock’s musical direction, all three cast members give likable and tuneful performances.

Hardin is particularly convincing as the stage-struck Shumway, while Adams, by a slight margin, exhibits the most commanding voice. As Merman, Handy isn’t always as big and brassy as she could be, especially when she’s speaking. But when she really lays into a song, her Merman impersonation is nearly impeccable.

The songs themselves are sometimes takeoffs on Broadway tunes that became Merman standards. For example, Most People fills in for Some People from Gypsy, while You’re the Best replaces You’re the Top from Anything Goes. These are OK, but they suffer from comparison to the hits that inspired them.

Some of the Schwartz’s original songs are more entertaining, especially the Act 2 tribute Because of You, beautifully sung by Adams. Babcock’s spirited piano provides the musical accompaniment.

In between the songs, and even during one of them (Son of a Motherless Goat), the humor often pokes fun at the Mormons’ squeaky-clean ways, such as their refusal to curse. These jokes quickly suffer from diminishing returns.

More impressive than the script is the set on which it’s performed. Director Adam’s scenic design, showing Merman’s living room, is far more detailed than anything we’re used to seeing in the Columbus Performing Arts Center’s cozy Van Fleet Theatre.

With a handsome set, an endearing cast and a timeless moral, The Book of Merman adds up to a harmless diversion. If you want more than that, you’ll have to hold out for The Book of Mormon.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Book of Merman through July 30 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (no show July 27). Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 seniors, $15 students. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

‘Mormon’ musical isn’t just a raunchy satire

Elder Price (Mark Evans, left) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) are given a rousing sendoff as they prepare to take the Mormon message to Uganda (Broadway.com photo)
Elder Price (Mark Evans, left) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) are given a rousing sendoff as they prepare to take the Mormon message to Uganda (Broadway.com photo)

By Richard Ades

The Book of Mormon has finally arrived in Columbus, and I’ve now had the chance to form a second opinion on the show I saw nearly a year ago on Broadway.

That opinion: I like it even better the second time.

Admittedly, the first act was a bit of a letdown when I attended the show Wednesday at the Ohio Theatre, partly because it had lost the element of surprise. But the second act delivered even more of a payoff, both comically and emotionally.

Emotionally? Yes. This hit musical by Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone does have some inspiring and heartfelt moments in between all the F-bombs and sexual references.

You’ve probably heard that The Book of Mormon takes a satirical look at the titular faith, including its odd belief that Jesus visited what is now upper-state New York during the brief time between his crucifixion and his resurrection. Yes, it has religious zingers aplenty, and they’re both sly and hilarious. At its core, though, this is the story of a friendship between two young missionaries.

Elder Kevin Price (Mark Evans) is the fair-haired child of his missionary class, so flawless that people assume “Heavenly Father” will grant him any wish he desires. And what Kevin desires is to be assigned to spread the Mormon message in Disney-fied Orlando, which he considers the most perfect place on earth.

Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) is Kevin’s opposite, a roly-poly ne’er-do-well with a propensity for stretching the truth. Kevin is chagrined to learn that he and Arnold have been assigned to spend their two-year mission together, and he’s even more chagrined to learn that they’ll be spending it in northern Uganda.

His chagrin turns to terror when he learns that the local people are oppressed not only by poverty, AIDS and superstition, but by a warlord who threatens to “circumcise” (i.e., genitally mutilate) all the women. After the colorfully named General Butt Fucking Naked (Corey Jones) proves his ruthlessness by shooting a detractor in the face, Kevin decides his best option is to request a transfer out of this godforsaken land.

The Book of Mormon’s success depends most heavily on Arnold, an irresponsible scamp who ultimately is forced to Man Up, as he sings in the rousing number that caps off Act 1. In the touring production at the Ohio, O’Neill hits every note just right whether he’s singing or speaking. Over the show’s 2½ hours, he builds a portrayal of a lovably needy but surprisingly resourceful man-child.

Evans also hits every note just right as Kevin, revealing a sweet voice and an innate decency hiding just beneath the character’s self-important surface. He even projects a modicum of vulnerability after a guilty conscience lands Kevin in the middle of a Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. The gaudy musical number surrounds him with threatening demons, a dismissive Jesus and even dancing Starbucks cups. (Mormons, of course, are forbidden from drinking either alcohol or caffeine.)

The show’s third important character is Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube), a young village woman who responds to the Mormon message because it offers her hope in a hopeless world. Ncube projects charming naiveté and a beautiful singing voice, particularly in her wistful solo Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

Parker co-directs the large and energetic cast with choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who fills the production numbers with clever, spirited dance steps. Justin Mendoza conducts the orchestra, which puts forth a full and satisfying sound despite relying heavily on keyboards. Scott Pask’s scenery, augmented by Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, efficiently moves the action from continent to continent and century to century as needed.

Though The Book of Mormon delights in ridiculing the most eccentric beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it can’t really be described as anti-religious. It accepts and even celebrates religion’s ability to offer hope to people who need it.

The show may not inspire to re-evaluate your beliefs the next time men in white shirts and dark ties ring your doorbell, but you probably won’t slam your door in their faces, either.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The Book of Mormon through May 25 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $43-$145. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Broadway sightings: singing Mormons and a memorabilia-hawking OSU grad

The Eugene O’Neill Theatre is the Broadway home of The Book of Mormon (photos by Richard Ades)
The Eugene O’Neill Theatre is the Broadway home of The Book of Mormon (photos by Richard Ades)
Actor and OSU grad Paul Moon sells Book of Mormon memorabilia while waiting for his own show, My Big Gay Italian Wedding, to return to the stage
Actor and OSU grad Paul Moon sells Book of Mormon memorabilia while waiting for his own show, My Big Gay Italian Wedding, to return to the stage

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.