The Book of Mormon began previews last night in front of a capacity audience who were all determined to fall in love with this new musical. And why wouldn't they? On board is the team of Trey Parker, Matt Stone (the pair behind South Park), and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q. By the end of the evening, a side-split audience may not have fallen in love, but damn it all to hell, they did have a fucking awesome time. (You can count Family Circle in that crowd.) As far as first previews go, this one ran almost without a hitch, a rare achievement for a new musical opening cold on Broadway without an out-of-town tryout. The only issue affecting last night's performance was a minor sound system problem about 18 minutes in which was quickly remedied ("blame Canada!" an audience member cried). Already the production is standing on solid ground and certainly does not require extensive rewrites, cast changes, or book doctoring. Last night's standing room only audience, filled with young and old, straight and gay, New Yorkers and out-0f-towners made it clear: the producers of Mormon may very well have a massive hit on their hands.
The plot, in a nutshell, revolves around a pair of proselytizing Morons sent to Uganda to baptise its local inhabitants. To their surprise, they find themselves amidst civil strife, great poverty, and a lot of AIDS. Throughout the play, short vignettes on the history of Mormonism are shown and are designed to mock both the religion and its origins. The interaction these young missionaries (or, "Elders" as they refer to one another) have with the native peoples is what drives the thin but humorous plot. Character development and plot come short in Mormon, but what the play lacks in both it makes up with in humor. The second act, in particular, where the local inhabitants perform a devastatingly funny play for their visitors and baptizers is a moment of such humor that even the most ardently devout would - to be frank - lose their shit laughing. Added to this, the first act song "Hasa Diga Eebowai," features such choice lyrics as "Here's the butcher. He has AIDS. Here's the doctor. He has AIDS. Here's my daughter. She has . . . a lovely personality. But if you touch her, I'll give you my AIDS!" The truth of the matter is, most of the really fantastic and funny scenes involve the Ugandans which is a problem that needs to be addressed.
The musical revolves around two central characters, neither of which truly captures our attention. It's not that both actors aren't delivering exceptional performances - this is especially true of the adorable Andrew Rannells - it's just that neither have exceptional material to work with. Rannells' "I Believe," a song that wants to be a ten o'clock show stopper (but isn't) is weighed down by its repetitive chorus and flat jokes about Mormonism. Similarly Josh Gad's act one finale "Man Up" attempts to end the act on a high note but is simply too corny to be affective. Gad is forced to deliver trite lyrics about "manning up" while a group of chorus-boys in tight "manly" white t-shirts and tight pants (I don't know, maybe this is the Chelsea version of manly?) sashay around him. Family Circle is all about seeing chorus boys in tight fitting clothing, but this combination of embarrassing performance and song was downright lame. Matters are made worse when during the song, he is is joined by the rest of the cast singing themes from previously heard songs. The different melodic tracks work well together, it's just that "Man Up" is too bland to compete with the rest.
We would be foolish not to discuss the music of Robert Lopez (in the audience this evening) whose Q we consider to be the best musical of the past decade. Period. Lopez's basic use of a minimal orchestra centered upon a single piano perfectly captured the witty, funny, and utterly inappropriate book by Q's Jeff Whitty. With Mormon, Lopez hasn't suddenly become the next Bernstein, but it would be unfair to not recognize his musical development. First, he is now employing a larger orchestra and bringing out more texture and density that is lacking in Q. In addition, his musical theater heroes are showing a bigger impression in Lopez's work: the opening number "Hello" is so close in impression, wording, and tempo to Sondheim's "Please Hello" that it is either an homage or an out-and-out theft...we believe it is the former. "Salt Lake City," a lovely ballad in the first act feels like Lopez's tribute to Alan Menken's "Somewhere That's Green" (Nikki M. James simply destroys with this number). This is an original Broadway recording Family Circle will be buying.
The incredible physical production of Mormon is, or should be considered locked. The set features a very impressive stained-glass adorned proscenium along with painted planet murals and stage curtain which wonderfully fits the gilded walls and ceilings of the Eugene O'Neil Theater. Part camp, part representational, flat and garish sets are used to resemble Salt Lake City and Orlando (don't ask) while richer colors and heftier set pieces are employed in the Uganda scenes; seemingly this difference is used to emphasise the harsh living in African compared to the bloated and fortunate lifestyle of an American town.
Unsurprisingly, Casey Nicholaw's choreography is zippy and fun, fitting somewhere between the dazzling acrobatics of The Drowsy Chaperone and the more slapstick dancing of Spamalot. Nicholaw has created a number of fantastic Broadway (with a capital "B") dance sequences which will grow even stronger and tighter through previews. Technically, Nicholaw is billed as co-director along with Trey Parker, so to determine when his work begins and Parker's ends is somewhat difficult. The production manages to get the comic notes just right (aside from the already discussed act one finale) but doesn't quite hit the right character notes. In fairness, we come to musicals like this in order to get lost in the silly jokes and frivolous songs, but if we are going to follow two principal actors through the course of the night, wouldn't it be better if we knew them a little better? Yes, they develop through the course of the musical, but we never see that change occur: we are only given the finished product.
Bottom line: Mormon will be a hit. FC also believes that the show has built-in long term potential in that it will attract repeat viewings.
We're already planning our next visit...