Book of Mormon-National Tour

Okay, I’ve seen this show three time now, once on Broadway with the original cast (it never gets better than that) and twice with the national tour and I just have to say, apparently this sh#t just does not get old! You would think it would, but it doesn’t. Having seen the show more than once you’re anticipating the funny parts you remember and the funny parts you don’t remember take you by surprise. It’s here in DC until August 16th at the Kennedy Center, if you’re in the mood to laugh. I’m not writing a new review, but my original post from 2011.

May 31, 2011: So it has taken a little mulling over and chewing and writing and re-writing to try and figure out how to best describe this show. The show got a lot of buzz early on, just because of the people involved in this production and the topic they’ve chosen to feature. If you are not aware of this show it is the brain child of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, yes the South Park guys, the guys who showed up to the Oscars in dresses, the ones who keep killing Kenny, those guys. I will admit that South Park is not my typical cup of tea; I’m more of a chai girl. When I heard that they had been developing the show for over seven years and were collaborating with Broadway veteran Robert Lopez I was much reassured. Mr. Lopez is a Tony award winning writer for Avenue Q, a hilariously wrong, wrong spoof of the Sesame Street genre. The Book of Mormon was conceived when these three men met and hilarity is the result.

I have to give them a lot of credit, they have written a tight, clever and ridiculously funny show. If you want to see it any time soon I suggest you take a moment and get on line and get your tickets now. It’s selling out quickly and months in advance. Once it cleans up at the Tony Awards in a couple of weeks (as all trends seem to be indicating) tickets will only be harder and more expensive to get.

The show for all of its irreverence and eschewing of standard mores actually follows some classic musical formulas. The plot, at its core, is the classic buddy road movie combined with typical young man coming of age story. It’s somewhere between Bing and Hope in the “Road to Morocco”, “Stand By Me” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. Okay, it tends to tilt towards Bill and Ted but that doesn’t make it any less funny. The show follows the adventures of two young Mormon missionaries Elder Price (Kevin) and Elder Cunningham (Arnold) that have been sent to convert the inhabitants of a small village in Uganda. As in most “buddy” stories the pair consists of the alpha personality (Kevin) who is seemingly strong, good and an ideal Mormon and his goofy misfit mission partner Arnold who has problems “misapplying” his imagination.

The show pushes and frequently hurdles, with feet to spare, the boundaries of propriety and good taste but usually I was laughing too hard to notice. The insidious thing about this show is that underneath all the humor and inappropriateness they’re exploring some basic ontological questions about the nature of faith and the role of organized religion in modern society. You could probably replace most freshman level theology courses with this show, and class enrolement would increase tenfold. Kevin learns that faith isn’t a quid pro quo situation, just because you’ve been a good Mormon all your life and prayed every day doesn’t mean that God is going to send you on Mission to the most beautiful place on Earth, Orlando. Nor will a devout belief in God’s word necessarily provide actual physical protection and will not in all likely hood stop General Buttfuckingnaked (that’s his formal title) from shoving your Holy book somewhere the Heavenly Father never intended it to reside. Fear of Hell is not sufficient motivation for doing good works. The show questions the nature of missionary work, it’s hard to be concerned about the nature of God when you’re too busy trying not to die from dysentery or AIDS. In one of the funniest parts of the show Arnold, in his zeal to convert people and an attempt to actually improve the villager’s lives, allow his “imagination” to run away with him and adds some interesting verses to the Book of Mormon.

There are a few times in the show where I did inhale sharply; you have to tread delicately when dealing with female circumcision, but they do come down firmly against it and stopping it is one of the main plot points. I could actually get behind a tenant that states “For a clitoris is Holy amongst all things,” that’s not a bad starting point for a religion.

Is the show offensive to Mormons? You’ll have to find one who’s seen it and ask them. It actually made me curious about the religion, apparently there’s more to it than the tabernacle and polygamy. An angel named Moroni, really? Aren’t angels supposed to have strong names like Gabriel and Michael? Ancient Jews sailed to upstate New York? You get your own planet? I’m going to have to look this up. Meanwhile, every time you laugh at the Mormon beliefs, the show is questioning the belief systems of every organized religion. Why are the Mormon beliefs any more ridiculous than water into wine or oil that burns for much longer than it should? Such is the nature of faith is it not, belief without understanding.

The songs throughout are laugh out loud funny and frankly not as profane or really even as sacrilegious as I expected. After all, half the characters are Mormon and it would not be in character for them to be cussing up a storm. This leaves the profanity to the African characters (which is only slightly more appropriate but somebody needed to do the cussing) and even then, there are only a couple of songs that are overtly profane. The song Hasa Dega Eebowai is the worst song as far as profanity and blasphemy goes, it is intentionally the opposite sentiment expressed in the song Hakuna Matata from the Lion King (which is mocked throughout the show) and expresses a less than exemplary opinion of God.  When the cast of whiter than white Mormon characters sing “I am Africa” I nearly peed my pants. The penultimate moment of the show is when the African villagers present to the head of the Mormon mission a play enacting the story of Joseph Smith, with Arnold’s embellishments; I’m certain that this is the first time someone has successfully incorporated the danger of dysentery into a Broadway musical.

The more I think about the show the more I think of the show as being akin to the fool in most any of Shakespeare’s plays. They speak the truth in jest. But, lest you start thinking the show is too erudite, the last word sung in the score of the show is “scrotum.”

I do have to give some love to the cast; they give their all to the material and really make the show work. The leads Josh Gad as Arnold and Andrew Rannels as Kevin and Nikki James as Nabulungi are all most deservedly Tony nominated but it truly is an ensemble effort. The entire cast is wonderful and I would love to post some videos of them performing but the producers of the show have been quite stingy with any videos of the production. Here are a few of the songs; I tried to keep them PG-13.

Dear Evan Hansen…

…it turns out it’s going to be a pretty damn good show!

DearEvanIn this era of, “take a moderately successful movie, throw in some stunt casting and turn it into a musical,” I search for those ever more rare gems that are original works for the stage. Friday night, in Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage, I hit that even rarer theatrical Grand Slam, original book, original lyrics, original score and…AND, it was really, really good! I went into this show blind, I knew nothing about it except it was directed by Michael Greif (i.e. Next to Normal, Rent, that fact alone is sufficient to get my posterior into any theater seat!) I was rewarded with a wonderful and moving evening of theater. It’s one of the reasons I try and encourage people to take a theatrical risk here and there, if you always default to the known quantity how are you going to discover something new, something potentially great? With all the truly exceptional shows I’ve seem multiple times (and will see again), Cabaret, Next to Normal, Les Mis, Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…the second or third time around are never as good, you can never recapture that moment of discovery.

But, before I get totally side tracked, let me get back to this show.

Dear Evan Hansen, I don’t want to give too much away, covers a not uncommon and universal topic of the outcast teenager and explores too often relevant affects social media can have in both aggrandizing and ostracizing people, especially teenagers. The story revolves around two teenage boys, Evan Hansen and Conner Murphy, both social outcasts who could not be more different, yet shared many similarities. Both had no friends, both were being medicated, both had less than ideal family lives and both felt trapped, with little concept of escape.

Minor spoiler alert here.

These characters were never friends until one commits suicide; after that they develop a pretty strong bond. Their first song together is easily my favorite song in the show. You’ll have to trust me this posthumous relationship just works. The suicide comes out very early in the show and if I’m going to recommend you see this show, which I am doing, I feel an obligation to mention it. Everyone I spoke to at intermission and after the show mentioned someone they knew who committed suicide; which plays right into the premise of the story. We all have some internal need to connect with a tragedy, especially suicide, and if this is a tender topic for you, perhaps this show is not for you. I think it confounds us, this act, where the perpetrator is the true victim, yet so many can suffer the affects and also feel victimized. The core of the story revolves around how the families, schoolmates (after all he had no friends before he died) and complete strangers (enter the social media aspect) react to the tragedy; the recriminations, the search for consolation, the need to place blame and the search for absolution.

Lest you be concerned, this show does not devolve into some sort of Wagnerian death cycle. Rather, this complex topic is explored with honest forthrightness and just the right touch of humor and is in the end an uplifting story. A coming of age story. A story that says it does get better, you’re not trapped.

The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, which lean not unpleasantly toward the modern rock opera style, have gained neat purchase in my not-so-sub-conscious and are a great compliment the book by Steven Levenson. I’m mildly frustrated not to have a song list to reference and even more perturbed that a soundtrack is likely nowhere in the near future. The song “Sincerely, Me” (no idea if that’s the actual title) is easily my favorite song and establishes the relationship between Conner and Evan; it’s actually quite funny and helps to set the balance between the drama and comedy. The poignant sister’s song, “No Requiem,” questions why everyone is mourning someone they did not know and did not like and she resolves that she will not feign grief for someone who made her life difficult, despite the fact that she is quite obviously grieving. There were so many good songs!

What’s most impressive about this show is how complete it feels. I know they’ve been work shopping it for a while but the Friday night performance was the first preview performance and if they were that good on the first night think what they’re going to be like in a a couple of weeks when they’ve really settled into their roles. Sure there weren’t a few things here and there, the first number was a little wobbly, there was one duet with Conner and Evan where the actor’s dynamics seemed a little off; some minor audio issues, mostly when the sister was singing; but really that’s just being a picky. The positives of the show far outweigh any first performance wobbliness. I am very tempted to go back towards the end of the run and see where they are then, it can only get better.

Not to take anything away from the rest of this excellent cast but the core of the show are Ben Platt and Mike Faist as Evan and Connor, respectively. I suppose casting Mr. Platt could be considered “stunt casting” (personal per peeve) but as I am totally unfamiliar with the Pitch Perfect-verse it concerns me not at all. Plus, young Mr. Platt has some serious theater cred, most impressively having recently played Elder Cunningham (Book of Mormon) on Broadway, and he has an actual theatrical resume. Mr. Faist, likewise, while young is building an significant resume and his turn as Connor is quite impressive. I might actually prefer it to Mr. Platt’s performance, but that’s a fine hair to split. The two actors have great chemistry as their characters depict the opposite sides of the “outcast” coin. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t give special praise to Rachel Bay Jones, who’s “Mother’s Lament” (see without a song list I make up my own names) had me in tears, it was a powerful performance of a very poignant and truth filled song.

Finally, this post would be incomplete without the cherry topper of the evening, while loitering after the show, thanks to the quick eye of new friend, I was able to get Michael Greif’s autograph! No disrespect to the lovely actors but that just really made my day! It’s a pretty rare opportunity.

I sincerely hope this makes it way to Broadway, and I’m quite willing to forego the opportunity to see Clueless the Musical or Fight Club: the Rock Opera, to see something like this instead.