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Thursday, November 05, 2015

An Irreverent 'Book of Mormon' at the Hippodrome

You know that once the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler, Lucifer, Johnnie Cochran, and Genghis Kahn make their way into a musical, you better be ready for non-stop laughter.  The Book of Mormon, currently running at the Hippodrome Theatre as part of a national tour, is a spicy extravaganza with a heavy dose of salt that will please the palate in this hilarious irreverent spoof of religion that takes no detours in offending everyone.  #hocoarts

In fact, nobody is safe from the comical silliness that defines this show: Blacks, Christians, Mormons, Jews, all organized religion, Chinese, gays, women, true believers and others are all targets in a rather good-natured way that is not intended to be mean-spirited.  Nevertheless, such barbs along with body function descriptions are cringe-worthy in some instances, and if you have not seen The Book of Mormon before, be prepared. 

This should come as no surprise as the book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone are familiar with this brand of biting satire. Parker and Stone are the four-time Emmy Award-winning creators of the animated series, South Park. Tony Award-winner Lopez is co-composer and lyricist of the long-running hit musical comedy, Avenue Q and the Oscar-winning Frozen#hocoarts
The Book of Mormon is brilliantly choreographed by Tony Award-winner Casey Nicholaw (Monty Python’s Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone) and is directed expertly by Nicholaw and Parker.  A winner of nine Tony Awards in 2011including Best Musical, The Book of Mormon burst on the theatre scene coincidentally at the time Mitt Romney—the only Mormon candidate to run for president—was gearing up for his 2012 run. 

The story centers on two young LDS missionaries who were sent to Uganda rather than the desired Orlando to share the Book of Mormon with villagers in a remote part of northern Uganda.  The challenge is complicated by the fact that only one of the missionaries, Elder Price, played strongly by David Larsen, actually read the book. The other, Elder Cunningham, played deliciously by Cody Jamison Strand, had not done so, and instead has a habit of “making things up” to fill in the blanks.
Moreover, the villagers had other things on their minds besides religion.  Poverty, famine, AIDS and a despotic warlord offer hopelessness to the good people of the village.  The ensuing efforts to get the villagers to buy in to the teachings of the Book of Mormon against all odds constitute the essence of the plotline.

Scott Pask’s superb set design provides the background for all the action.  His depiction of the Ugandan village complete with mud huts, and the seamless transformation to the scene from hell—literally—that served as the locale for the Mormon’s hell dream where all the aforementioned villains appeared, is simply spectacular.

Candace Quarrels as Nabulungi and Cody Jamision Strand as
Elder Cunningham
Adding to the flavor are Ann Roth’s exquisite costumes, Brian MacDevitt’s energetic and imaginative lighting design and Brian’s Ronan flawless sound design.
Under the musical direction of David Truskinoff and the solid work of the nine-member orchestra, the cast both individually and in lively tap dancing production numbers danced and sang wonderfully to the score and the clever lyrics.  Most of the high-tempo songs and ballads are excellent and the standouts include: “Hello,” “Two by Two,” “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” the side-splitting “Turn It Off,”  the rousing conclusion of Act I “Man Up,”  another hysterical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,”  “I Believe,” “I Am Africa,” “Joseph Smith American Moses,” and “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day.”

As Elder Price, the handsome Mr. Larsen shines as an actor and demonstrates his rich vocals throughout.  Price takes his mission seriously but later experiences self-doubt about the religion and his ability to succeed.  He is the straight man to the comical Elder Cunningham in which Mr. Strand delivers a tour de force reminiscent of Josh Gad in the original Broadway production. 

Elder Cunningham, who has a problem with telling the truth, attempts to teach the villagers about Mormonism.  But since he never read the book, he inserts various characters from Lord of the Rings and Star Wars in his teachings. 
Rotund with a high-pitched voice, Cunningham is set up with most of the comedic lines and actions.  He eventually takes the mission seriously but all he seemingly wanted to do when he began is to find a friend—any friend—and wound up with Price who didn’t share that goal but put up with him until he couldn’t take it anymore.  Cunningham also uproariously demonstrates a new twist on what a Baptism ritual is. 

Besides acting, both Mr. Larsen and Mr. Strand can sing and dance and are paired up nicely in the duets “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” and “I Am Here for You” and perform quite capably in several production numbers.
Another superb performance is turned in by the lovely Candace Quarrells as Nabulungi, a young villager, who desires to go to Sal Tlay Ka Siti.  She sings the song with that title beautifully.

Other strong performances are delivered by David Aron Damane as the brutal General Butt [something] Naked and Daxton Bloomquist as Elder McKinley, a fellow who suppresses his attraction to men but can turn it off like a switch.
The remainder of the company are outstanding in their supporting roles as well as dance sequences and clearly have a lot of fun performing in this musical.

Great staging, great performances, great songs and great technical elements show why The Book of Mormon is so highly regarded, and the deafening standing ovation it received the night this performance was reviewed reflects that.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: the show contains profanity and is not suitable for children
The Book of Mormon runs through November 15 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or click here ticketmaster.com or click here for Hippodrome information. 

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