Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: (Toronto) The Book of Mormon

Mark Evans (photo: Joan Marcus)

Thank you God! (Ma ha nei bu, Eebowai!)
Like a Joseph Smith torpedo from the mouth of Christ, The Book of Mormon is an explosion of all that is good in musical theatre
by Stuart Munro

Every now and then a show comes along you know you’ve just got to see, no matter what. So even though CharPo was not invited to The Book of Mormon’s opening night, I spent the cash and dragged myself and Dave Ross down to the Princess of Wales Theatre to find out exactly what everyone has been raving about.

It could not have been money better spent.

The Book of Mormon is every bit as infectious and joyous and silly and offensive and heartfelt as I’ve heard, and then some. Taking you across the Atlantic to the hard life of Northern Uganda the show takes an honest, if light hearted, look at what really lies behind faith, and what happens when a shaky faith is challenged. The answer, ultimately, is a belief in the truths behind the literal nonsense of the stories (“It’s called a metaphor . . .”).

Evans is every bit the polished and perfected missionary out to make the world a better place.

Taking this show along its wild path to success in Toronto are Mark Evans and Christopher John O’Neill as Elders Price and Cunningham, the unlikely pair of Mormon missionaries who find themselves in a Ugandan village completely unlike anything they’ve ever known. Evans is every bit the polished and perfected missionary out to make the world a better place. His bright smile reaches to the upper balcony, and his charmingly over eager dance moves left me in stitches. A talented singer and actor, Mr. Evans joins the company from the UK as part of the American/UK Equity exchange program, and I’m pleased to say that not once did his home accent make an appearance. The standout, however, is Christopher John O’Neill as Elder Cunningham, the follower with no friends. O’Neill’s Cunningham is so sad and lonely and sweet and sincere that at intermission, Dave turned to me and said “I just want to give him a hug and tell him everything’s going to be OK.” A comedian by trade, Mr. O’Neill acquits himself with more than enough skill to prove he belongs on that stage. Especially strong in his 80’s hair band inspired Act I finale, “Man Up,” O’Neill carries most of the show on his shoulders like it’s no big thing (and is impossibly adorable to boot!).

To be honest, this is one of the strongest companies I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a long time. The dancing Mormon boys present a perfect showstopper of a tap number in Act I’s “Turn it Off,” and the Ugandan villagers do a wildly fantastic interpretation of the story of Joseph Smith (featuring the Angel Moroni beaming down from the starship Enterprise!) in Act II’s “Joseph Smith – American Moses.” Moreover, the large company’s voices blended in such a polished and perfected way that I had goosebumps by the end of the first, John Sousa-inspired number. Naming everyone would be impossible, but Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi (Nintendo? Neosporin?) gives a fantastic performance, easily moving between the soulful “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” and the hilarious, thinly veiled sex metaphor, “Baptize Me.”

The direction by Casey Nicholaw and co-author Trey Parker is always fast-paced

The design of the show is equally as impressive. Scott Pask’s large set pieces effortlessly glide on and off stage helping to create transitions that are quick and seamless, and even provide one or two sight gags. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design (featuring two disco balls!) effortlessly moves between the realistic and the absurd for the various dream sequences. And Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is a wonderful mix of 50s and 60’s boy group inspired steps for the missionaries during “Two by Two” (and really any other time Elder Price decides to dance) and more traditional African moves for “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a song built around giving God the finger. The direction by Casey Nicholaw and co-author Trey Parker is always fast-paced, but never frenetic – the show moves quickly, but the audience is never left wondering what’s happening – a delicate and essential balance for a show like this.

The songs by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone are easily this show’s highlight. The tunes are always catchy, borrowing ideas from enough musicals to catch any listener’s ear (Wicked, The Sound of Music, Hairspray, and The King and I, just to name a few . . .), and the lyrics include enough word plays to turn anyone’s head. The only weak point would be the book, also by Parker, Lopez, and Stone. The scenes between songs are often a bit too short, the transitions into the music is sometimes a little clunky, and certain characters (Nabalungi especially) don’t get a lot to do in the first act.

Normally, this would bother me, if the whole production wasn’t handled with so much care. Every step, word, note, bit of direction, dance, and scene transition has clearly been thought about and executed with the purpose of making the show work. A comedy like this could easily find itself going over the top from the first note, but this never does, and by the time the Ugandan’s chant of “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (fuck you, God) is turned around to “Ma ha nei bu, Eebowai” (thank you, God), there were genuine “Awwww’s” from the audience members around me. The Book of Mormon reads like a love letter to musical theatre, written by people who not only love the genre, but who understand it as well. And something like that makes all the difference.

The Book of Mormon runs until June 9 at the Princess of Wales Theatre

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