REVIEW: 'The Book of Mormon' at the Murat

June 18, 2014
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Packed with big laughs, a remarkably solid stack of songs, smart choreography, infectous high spirits and, yes, outrageous moments, "The Book of Mormon" has arrived in Indy in strong shape. (It plays through June 22 at the Murat).

The Tony-winning Best Musical tells the story of a pair of missionaries assigned to spread the word about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to a village in Uganda.

Strangers-in-a-strange-land plots are nothing new in musicals. But “The King and I” this isn’t. Images of a “Lion King”-like Africa give way quickly to harsh realities. The optimistic young men find themselves surrounded by AIDS-ridden locals, a vicious warlord and, in a great visual gag to underline their transition, a zebra corpse hauled across the stage.


What happens next—including the would-be AIDS cure, the translation of the catchy “Hakuna Matata”-like ditty the villagers sing, and the place where a “Book of Mormon” gets uncomfortably lodged—is best left to your own discovery when you see the show.

But as I wrote when I first saw the show in its Chicago mounting, as much as it takes glee in shocking, this is not a one-note show. I didn’t feel pummeled by single-mindedness the way I often do at shock comedies or shock action films at the movies. It’s obvious from the first notes that “The Book of Mormon” was crafted by people who love musical theater.

They understand that, given characters we care about, we’ll go almost anywhere (including into a “Mormon Hell Dream” where Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran share a cave). They get that naïve optimism in these characters can be more moving than heart-on-the-sleeve confession. Case in point: Alexandra Ncube's lovely "Sal Tlay Ka Siti."
Of the two leading missionaries, Christopher John O'Neill can do no wrong as Elder Cunningham, the perpetual second fiddle who gets a chance to be a leader. Mark Evans doesn't show as many shades of fun. His chiseled good looks and strong voice give him a presence, but he doesn't seem to be as naturally comic as his predecessors in the role. He's fine, just not exceptional.


Of course, it helps that the tunes are terrific. The less-heralded hero of “The Book of Mormon” is composer Robert Lopez, who supplies catchy song after catchy song with a consistency that hasn’t been seen since the first act of “Hairspray.” Yes, he's the same guy who wrote "Let It Go" from "Frozen." The guy has chops.

Seeing the show a second time didn't reveal any new facets but also didn't diminish the fun. Once again, though, I wondered if many people in the convulsive audience really got the message of the show: that religion can do important things even if we take its stories as metaphorical rather than literal truth.

That’s a shockingly radical statement for a popular musical comedy.

 

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly identified previous theater credits for Mark Evans. He did, in fact, star in West End productions of "Wicked" and "Ghost" but not "The Book of Mormon." Apologies for the error.

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  • Second viewing
    Re: "Seeing the show a second time didn't reveal any new facets but also didn't diminish the fun." I saw the show for the second time last night and thought that there are a lot of subtleties that you might not recognize immediately the first time you see it. Re: "Once again, though, I wondered if many people in the convulsive audience really got the message of the show: that religion can do important things even if we take its stories as metaphorical rather than literal truth." I sincerely hope you're underestimating the sophistication of the audience.
  • Knows All
    Often you offer interesting and thoughtful reviews, but too often they are coupled with your disdain for your fellow theater goers.
    • Better part?
      I'm so glad you wrote that about the actor in the lead. I couldn't believe that's the role that won the Tony - Christopher John O'Neill in the 2nd lead was much better. He was subtle and hilarious. While I loved the show, I wonder how many walk outs they have at each performance. Last night there was one guy who reached his limit early in act two.
      • No disdain
        No disdain intended at all. I have enormous respect for anyone who pays money and takes time to attend the performing arts. My point is that while it's easy to laugh at the ideas in the play as they apply to an "other" religion, I'm not convinced that many audience members are seeing that it also opens the door to questioning the facts behind their own. Thanks for reading (and going to theater), Lou
      • RE: Convulsive Audience
        I have to agree with a couple of the other comments. This critique about the "convulsive" audience is a little offensive to me as a theatre-goer. Yes, the audience was in an uproar with laughter, but that doesn't mean the're simpleminded or brainless as you assume. Lou, I'm sorry us "normal" folk aren't intelligent enough for you.
        • convulsive
          Convulsive isn't insulting at all. I look back, with pleasure, on the times I've been convulsive with laughter in the theater. And, to be clear, I didn't say every audience member. Again, no insult intended, implied, or felt. Thanks for going to theater.
        • wrong
          Neither of the original actors won a Tony for BoM. Only Nikki James, playing Nabalungi, won the Tony, in the featured actress category.
        • Great show/Bad Venue
          Saw this show on opening night. Loved the show, however it was easily 80 degrees in the theater with very poor crowd control by the ushers. Glad there was no need for a rapid exit!
        • Wow, ppl are easily defensive
          I took Lou's point to be that the show doesn't browbeat you with its homages to classic musical theatre structure or the broader message it is making about the power of belief. Given how hysterical many find it (including myself), it would be easy to just enjoy everything you see and not catch some of those subtleties that reflect the creative team's convictions (see their many interviews) to both the musical theatre form and the transformative power of religion and belief for many.
        • Broadway Series
          This was one of the better shows for this years Broadway series. As a season ticket holder, I have not been overly impressed with the shows that have been coming to INDY. Add that to the exorbitant drink prices and the season ticket parking being moved off premise, I may have to think twice about renewing.
        • Really?
          Mark Evans is NOT from the West End company. He was never in the London cast. Do your research before you pretend to masquerade as an entertainment writer. This goes to show how the quality of the IBJ is terrible.
          • correction
            Thank you for pointing out the error. It has been corrected. Evans has appeared in London productions of "Wicked" and "Ghost" but not "The Book of Mormon."
          • Time Sensative?
            I see that this was 1st printed the 16th, but this version of the IBJ Daily Arts & Entertainment blog came out on the 26th, and the play left the 22nd. So at this point why do I need the review?
            • "need"
              Marsha: Thanks for reading. The A&E email includes links to my most recent blog posts and columns, whether they represent shows still running or not. And past reviews are available by searching the ibj.com site. I may be wrong here, but I assume from your use of the word "need" in your comment that you think reviews only exist as a kind of buyers' guide for what you should or shouldn't pay to see. I don't see reviews that way (which is one of the reasons I don't attach star ratings or thumbs up/thumbs down symbols. Sure, reviews can be helpful when consider a ticket purchase, but they also serve other purposes, including providing a kind of cultural history of the area, prompting engagement in a longer-term discussion of the arts, offering an opportunity to compare your reaction to the critic's, and perhaps encouraging patrons to see other offerings. If reviews only existed for shows that were still running, you'd never or rarely see commentary on most music or dance performances, since most of them only offer a single performance or a weekend. You are, of course, welcome to skip over reviews for shows no longer in town but I don't see a strong reasons not to include such reviews. Again, thanks for reading and taking the time to write. Be well, Lou
            • Messages
              I found much of the performance offensive and could see the depravity of man both in the performance and the audience's response, but I took a few messages away from it: 1. As missionaries, we have to be prepared to treat both the physical needs as well as the spiritual. 2. As missionaries, we must remain committed to these regions and cannot expect to make a difference with only short-term missions trips. 3. People who are in desperate situations will believe in anything if they feel it will deliver them from their circumstances, so we must give them something to believe with real hope rather than presenting a false gospel. 4. Religion can do important things but the "religion" must be based on more than just stories, especially false ones. While I did find much of the musical offensive and personally could not recommend it, it was creative in its presentation and the performances by both Christopher John O'Neill and Alexandra Ncube were outstanding.

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