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Theater Review: "The Book of Mormon"

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It was a huge coup for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League to book a run of the Broadway smash "The Book of Mormon" during its first national tour. Local audiences have taken advantage of the opportunity, with the six-night stand of the Tony-, Grammy-, and Drama Desk-winning musical completely selling out the Auditorium Theatre, save for the 20 tickets set aside for a lottery before each night's performance. Nabbing one of those tickets might qualify as a minor miracle, but it's worth the effort. The show is an instant modern musical classic, and a spectacle in every sense of the word.

As you might expect, "The Book of Mormon" concerns Mormonism, the religion founded in the 19th century by Joseph Smith right down the road from Rochester in Palmyra. It's not the first play to explore the fascinating faith -- Tony Kushner notably delved into it with his opus, "Angels in America." But "Book" has drawn criticism for its handling of the comparatively new religion largely because of the creative forces behind it, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the duo behind long-running satirical cartoon "South Park."

Parker and Stone are known for their crass, often sophomoric humor, and that has undoubtedly colored some of the response to "The Book of Mormon." Before the show even opened in Rochester, City Newspaper received comments on its website from people decrying the musical's flippant treatment of the Mormon faith. I'm curious if those commenters even bothered seeing the show before they criticized it, because honestly, I thought the Mormons in "The Book of Mormon" were treated with remarkable kindness by creators who have the capacity for extreme cruelty.

Yes, the show shines a light on some of the more outrageous claims in the Mormon faith (although it rarely comments on them directly; it just lays them out there for the audience to take in). And the proceedings are awash in coarse language and frat-boy-adjacent jokes. But the Mormon missionaries who serve as the protagonists are almost exclusively portrayed as kind, well-meaning people who are at times a bit clueless and misguided. By the end I was surprised to find that the same men who showed Satan and Saddam Hussein engaged in explicit gay sex in the "South Park" movie have given us a musical that ultimately positions organized religion -- and Mormonism in particular -- as flawed but capable of making important change in the lives of people who truly need it.

As for the touring production currently in Rochester, it's fantastic. The cast is filled with exciting song-and-dance numbers, some of the sets are truly spectacular (especially for a road show), and the show itself immediately grabs your attention and actually gets better as it goes along. (The second act is much better paced than the first.)

The action follows young Mormon missionaries Elder Price and Elder Cunningham as they are sent on their church-directed assignment to a remote village in Uganda. Elder Price is a smart, ambitious young man who longs to please his parents, his church, and his god. He is also, as Jesus blatantly tells him at one point in the play, kind of a dick. Elder Cunningham is a bit of a lost sheep, a social outcast who wants to be liked but who has a little problem with compulsive lying. The two of them join a group of impressively chipper missionaries trying to spread the word of the Third Testament to a town ravaged by poverty, famine, and AIDS, and dealing with a warlord who wants to mutilate the village's women. The missionaries are forced to confront the reality of the situation vs. what the church told them to expect, wrestle with their own doubts about faith, and come up with some creative solutions to their problems. And they do all of this while singing and dancing, and occasionally interacting with historical reenactments of Joseph Smith, Jesus, and the angel Moroni, with show-stopping cameos by Satan, Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochran.

The cast of the show is truly impressive. Mark Evans plays the role of Elder Price (Broadway star Gavin Creel was said to be playing the role when the show was initially announced), and he is a spectacular talent. He's got a huge voice, great range, tremendous dancing and physicality, and a fantastic presence. He stands out even on a crowded stage. Christopher John O'Neill makes his professional theater debut as Elder Cunningham, and for the most part he puts his sketch-comedy background to great use, delivering a very funny performance. But on Tuesday night O'Neill had one major down moment, as he delivered an underwhelming performance in the closing number to Act 1, "Man Up." I'm not sure if O'Neill's concentration broke, or he was uncomfortable with what was being asked of him, but he turned in an oddly distracted-feeling performance in a song that is designed to build to a huge moment.

Samantha Marie Ware plays the main female role, Nabulungi, and has one of the most astonishing female voices I've ever heard at an RBTL show; her singing pierces the soul. The only problem I had was that it was hard to make out many of the lyrics in her big ballad, "Sal TlayKaSiti," because she was singing with such an intense accent. That's a necessity of the character and script, however, and I'm not sure how you get around it.

The ensemble is stacked with great talent, and the show features some tremendous group numbers. The opening number "Hello" sets the upbeat tone for the show, and whenever the all-male missionaries get together, you get some lovely male harmonies -- and in the case of "Turn it Off," some delightful tap dancing.

Lastly, "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" is one of the most glorious sequences I've ever seen produced on stage. I sat through it enraptured, mouth agape, and immediately longing to see it again. It was truly a religious experience.

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