Review: 'Book of Mormon' lives up to the hype in Pittsburgh tour stop


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Each time it has been wondered aloud if the "The Book of Mormon" could win over a new audience, the audacious musical has laughed in the face of doubters and all the way to the bank. Yes, it's as jaw-droppingly funny and devilishly smart as you've heard. It's also just as mean and obscene, sweet and cuddly, with a bonanza of subversive comedy and brilliantly crafted musical numbers.

If you find yourself unable to stop humming a song with particularly vulgar lyrics, then the creators of "The Book of Mormon" have done their jobs.

In the world according to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, nothing is off limits as long as you leave 'em laughing -- and thinking. They follow in Mel Brooks' comedic footsteps and their own "South Park" roots with large doses of pop-culture touchstones and a production steeped in the tradition of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The parodies of religion and the pummeling of civility, combined with a good-natured buddy story, have helped make the show a virtual sellout from Broadway to Pittsburgh to London, where just last week it was breaking box-office records.

It helps that the Parker/Stone team found a comrade in composer Robert Lopez, who proved he knows his way around a catchy tune with "Avenue Q." Throw in the showy moves and stage sense of co-director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, and you have a mashup of talents that resulted in nine Tony wins.

'The Book of Mormon'

Where: PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center.

When: Through April 7. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $41-$150 at www.Trustarts.org or 412-456-4800 (most shows have limited availability at this point).

Note: Explicit language would earn an R rating at the movies.

Lottery: One entry per person will be accepted at the Theater Square Box Office 2 1/2 hours prior to each performance; participants print their names and the number of tickets (1 or 2 per person) they wish to purchase on a provided card. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn for a limited number of tickets at $25 each. Winners must be present at the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets.

Even though "Mormon" proved its mettle on Broadway, there were naysayers who conjectured that the road could be its Kryptonite. Not so. Audiences and critics have continued the hype and hoopla and glowing reviews. Now at the Benedum Center, "The Book of Mormon" is bound to put another notch in its "we conquered that town" belt.

The story opens with a human diorama at the birth of the Mormon religion, then flashes forward to modern-day Utah, where scrubbed and smiling young men sing a welcome that sets a brisk satirical pace. Among them are a pair of mismatched mission-mates, golden boy Kevin Price and schlubby Arnold Cunningham, who are sent to a Ugandan village beset by AIDS and famine while under constant threat of a bloodthirsty war lord. They are met by skepticism from the villagers and frightened fellow missionaries who inform them that no one in this part of the world has ever been converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Elder Price's faith is shaken, Arnold puts his best foot forward, and the mission takes a turn.

When it comes to "Mormon," you never forget your first time, but some things come oh-so close, and that's a fair comparison between the Broadway and touring shows. A good example is the character of Arnold. Carnegie Mellon grad Josh Gad, neither a singer nor a dancer before he originated the role, became a Tony nominee with a performance that combined an innate quirkiness and spot-on comic timing. Christopher John O'Neill is likewise a newcomer to musical theater. His comedic skills are served by a pleasant singing voice so that Arnold hasn't lost his groove in the translation. He shines in the numbers "Man Up" and "Making Things Up Again" (have fun counting the pop-culture references in the latter).

His companion is played in the tour by Mark Evans, a native of Wales who has starred in London musicals such as "Wicked" and "Ghost." He is making his US debut as an all-American Mormon, and he pulls it off beautifully. His animated expressions, limber moves and the ability to belt put his Elder Price on fine footing, although it should be noted that the Benedum sound system didn't always serve him well on Wednesday, and it especially hindered understanding with voiceovers.

There must be some changes to costumes and sets for the tour, but everything is just as I remember it from Broadway, where Scott Pask and Brian MacDevitt won Tonys for scenic and lighting design, respectively, and Ann Roth was a best-costume nominee. The elaborate "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" remains a show-stopper for its excess, along with some of the most vulgar references in the show.

Among the talented cast, standouts include Samantha Marie Ware as the hopeful, waif-like Nabulungi -- a name that Arnold can't master, so he comes up with other possibilities. In a role that won a Tony for Nikki M. James, Ms. Ware's version of "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" (sound it out) is a favorite, and she's a fine collaborator with Mr. O'Neill on "Baptize Me," a double entendre in this musical. Kevin Mambo as her father and Trevon Davis as the Doctor are among the unforgettable Ugandan characters.

CMU's Grey Henson puts a corn-fed spin on Elder McKinley, who is a master of the quick change and moves full tilt through each musical number. He also sings the most hummable song in the show, "Turn It Off," about subverting feelings -- something that's impossible when it comes to "The Book of Mormon."

Whatever you feel about the show is valid, but I believe you will feel something when Arnold is left to his own devices or as Kevin works his way through his personal crises.

"Book of Mormon" programs have been a favorite advertising vehicle for the real Church of Latter-Day Saints, and the one at the Benedum is no exception. It includes three full-page ads, with slogans such as "You've Seen the Play ... Now Read the Book," and "The Book Is Always Better." A head-scratching omission in the program is a song list, not just for the titles, but for giving the performers their due. There's speculation online that it's MIA because some might take offense to the titles, although I can't imagine why, not for a musical that's designed to offend as many people as possible and still leave them laughing and entertained.

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Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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