Thursday, December 20, 2012

'The Book of Mormon' is Heavenly If Perhaps Excessively Exalted -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Book of Mormon
Music, lyrics & book by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Open run

About the worst thing I can say about The Book of Mormon, now playing in Chicago at the Bank of America Theatre, is that I don’t agree with this heavily promoted—front & center on the marquee—opinion, ascribed to Ben Brantley, esteemed theater critic of the New York Times:

“The Best Musical of This Century.”

Although I believe the show, a phenomenon of astonishing proportions that has sold out every performance on Broadway since opening in March 2011, is clearly the best musical of this decade (though I haven’t seen Once), there are a number of shows from the '00s that I think are better. These include, roughly in order, The Producers, Avenue Q, Hairspray, Wicked, Spring Awakening, Billy Elliot, The Visit, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys, with The Book of Mormon slotting in next, just above In the Heights and Mary Poppins.

Overall, beyond works from the new millennium, I recently ranked The Book of Mormon #28 among My 100 All-Time Favorite Stage Musicals, based on having seen it on Broadway last year. And though the touring production now in Chicago is also outstanding, if perhaps a little less so, there are at least a couple classic musicals I’ve seen this year that left me slightly more exuberant at night’s end. (My list of the Best Musicals I’ve Seen in 2012 is coming next week, along with other Best of 2012 rankings.)

So no, even though the musical written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez, is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end, often hilarious, terrifically inventive, musically robust and rather uplifting, it is not the best musical of all-time. And thus, perhaps not quite deserving of what seems like unprecedented hype, hoopla and hard-to-get tickets.

But if your question is simply, “Should I see it?” my answer is a definitive “Yes.”

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Unless, of course, you are easily offended by extremely explicit blaspheming of God, lyrics and dialogue that giddily reference bestiality, dysentery and sexual organs (among other topics) and, yes, a good bit of ridicule toward Mormonism and its missionaries.

Before I lose those who are blanching right now, let me say that much akin to South Park—even though I really don’t watch it that often—The Book of Mormon works, and is truly rather brilliant, because of the clear reverence within Parker and Stone’s irreverence.

These are guys who, along with Lopez—co-composer/lyricist of Avenue Q—obviously love musicals, and while they certainly poke fun at Mormons, in the end of this surprisingly warmhearted show, it’s apparent that their targets are much more ritualistic inflexibility and closed-mindedness rather than any particular religious beliefs or doctrines.
While I don’t think the score (credited to all three creators, as is the book) scintillates quite as much as those of shows cited above, this is not a case of a dirty jokes accompanied by throwaway songs. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of raunch in the tunes themselves, but most of the songs are catchy in their own right.

And especially for musical theater aficionados—though Book of Mormon should also appeal to those who aren’t—it’s fun to note how the score often alludes to, imitates or simply reminds of other famous musicals.

Songs, or simply their styles or just a refrain, from The Book of Mormon harken back to The Lion King, The Sound of Music, Annie, Wicked and—according to the cast recording’s liner notes, as cited on Wikipedia—Bye, Bye Birdie, The Pajama Game and The King and I. But nothing really feels derivative, and with many other melodies that simply sound familiar, in its own way the score is an homage to musical theater.

There are songs that develop into big production numbers—"Hasa Diga Eebowai,” “Turn It Off,” “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”—as well as big, yearning solo ballads—“Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” “I Believe”—that make The Book of Mormon not just the funniest show in recent years, but one whose music is surprisingly first-rate.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
I won’t cite many storyline specifics so as to let all the humor come as a surprise, but The Book of Mormon is essentially about two young Mormons—Elder Price and Elder Cunningham—who are sent on their first mission, to Uganda. They meet up with other missionaries and try to convert the people in a northern Ugandan village to Mormonism.

In Chicago, Nic Rouleau (above) and Ben Platt (left) play Price and Cunningham, roles originated on Broadway by Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad. Rouleau had taken over the role on Broadway and seems rather perfect as Elder Price. As Cunningham, however, Platt is quite a bit thinner and less overtly humorous than Gad, now starring on NBC’s new 1600 Penn. Having very much enjoyed Gad on Broadway and the cast recording, I couldn’t help but perceive the tour casting as diminishing the Odd Couple dissonance of the Price/Cunningham pairing and lacking the overt physical humor of Gad’s Chris Farleyish manic exasperation.

Platt certainly sang well enough and in his 4-star (out of 4) Tribune review, Chris Jones calls him this production’s “true revelation,” as well as “hilariously funny.” So perhaps my perception of Platt being the one noticeable drop-off from Broadway is just mine. In any case, I’m not suggesting he should be a distraction for anyone encountering Book of Mormon for the first time.

I must admit that while watching the show on Tuesday night, there were points where I thought that I might rate it just @@@@1/2. Despite being terrific, it just felt a good step below The Producers, Avenue Q, Hairspray, etc., and perhaps a tad overrated and successful out-of-proportion.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
But by the end, with the uplifting “Tomorrow is a Latter Day” bringing things to a touching conclusion, I was sufficiently reminded that even if I believe there have been better musicals created throughout history, and even just the 20th Century, The Book of Mormon is a rather special piece of entertainment and worthy of an absolutely phenomenal @@@@@.

I hope you can get tickets while it’s in town. I think some are available next June. (Actually, I just checked Ticketmaster and their Interactive Seat Maps for some weeknights in January; if you don’t mind scattered singles, you can easily find a ticket. Plus there is a daily Book of Mormon ticket drawing that allows those selected to buy 2 up-front tickets for just $25 each.)

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