I was lucky enough to see the opening preview night of the Chicago Book of Mormon run this Tuesday (exceedingly lucky, thanks Amanda!). I’m sure many of you have seen it live elsewhere or on YouTube by now, so I’ll try to keep the synopsizing to a minimum and stick to the things that may be unique to this run.
I haven’t consistently watched South Park since college, but the opening scene dubbing of Trey Parker’s voice over the ancient Lamanites and Nephites put the Parker/Stone stamp on the production in the best way possible. It’s pretty hard to beat Jesus saying “But you gueeys….” I am slightly surprised at my own “ignorance” of certain parts of Mormon mythology, or at least the parts that supposedly came pre-Joseph Smith; but they are spelled out pretty well at the beginning of both acts. (Some language in this post is NSFW, believe it or not.)
The casting (to my sporadically-theater-going eye) seemed to be spot-on. The Mormon missionaries all looked 18 and appropriately perky. The Mormon president and his men looked plucked from a Romney fundraising dinner, feathered hair and all. General Butt-Fucking-Naked, whose name is a play on the nom de guerre of Joshua Milton Blahyi, well, you don’t question his name. The General is played by David Aron Damane. It’s worth noting that the character is actually meant to be a caricature of Joseph Kony.
Nic Rouleau as Elder Price (a stand-in and then star in the Broadway BOM) was appropriately priggish, preppy, and narcissistic; perhaps moreso than in other recordings I’ve seen. It is also a joy to watch his “fall” from Mormonism as he gets totally wasted on coffee. Ben Platt (also in Pitch Perfect, which I now need to see) plays his sidekick Elder Cunningham. I think I can safely say that this guy stole the show. His timing is impeccable; his pathological lying and mishandling of Mormon mythology, painfully hilarious. Pierce Cassedy as the closeted Elder McKinley switches his glittery fabulousness on and off at will, just as advised in the song “Turn It Off.”
The adorable, naïve Nabulungi (AKA Nutella/Nala/Neosporin/Neutrogena) was played by the lovely Stephanie Umoh, though this part was inexplicably recast as of Wednesday by American Idol’s Syesha Mercado. The bastism scene between Nabulungi and Elder Cunningham that ends up looking like both of their “first times” was especially priceless. Nabalungi’s protective yet foul-mouthed father Mafala Hatimbi was cast with Steppenwolf’s James Vincent Meredith. This character acts as the missionaries’ guide when they arrive in Uganda.
“Hasa Diga Eebowai” is a satirical earworm like none other. If you don’t know the meaning of this phrase by now, I’ll give you a moment to go Google it. As of this posting, it is still stuck on repeat in my head. “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is on par with the Satan scenes in the South Park movie, complete with Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Johnnie Cochran, and dancing cups of Mormon-forbidden coffee. As a side-note, most of the dance numbers had enough sparkly things and sci-fi characters in them (BDSM Darth Vader??) to keep me happy.
Perhaps the best musical number is “Joseph Smith American Moses,” in which the Ugandans recount the Mormon myths as bungled and embellished by Elder Cunningham (as though nonsense can be bungled). The performance-within-a-performance is a wonderful turducken of satire, with a uplifting African flavor and sci-fi and fantasy movie references galore.
There were a number of show-stopping moments throughout the night, but the longest pause had to be when the Ugandans were beginning to acknowledge that they didn’t believe Cunningham’s teachings literally. The villagers say to Nabulungi, who views Salt Lake City as a sort of paradise, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti isn’t an actual place,” “It’s an idea,” “All the stories the prophet told us were just metaphors,” and the irony hits the audience like a ton of golden plates.
I imagine that the audience for BOM is a mix of veteran musical goers and people who just are big South Park fans and rarely attend theater, but the great thing is that everyone walks away happy.
I rather doubt that this (albeit wildly successful) story will make any noticeable dent in this silly religion’s growing numbers. But, compared to the flavor of satire on South Park, I’d say this is a deft handling of subjects like 3rd world poverty, 80% HIV prevalence and female genital mutilation. The set backdrops, costumes, and props are beautiful and/or horrifying (I’m looking at you, cow carcass that is dragged across the stage during the opening Uganda scene).
If you live in Chicago or plan on visiting and don’t have tickets yet, you might not need to wait until the summer. Lotteries are held for each performance where winners can buy 1 or 2 tickets for $25 each, but you must be prepared to be at the theater when it opens to put your name(s) in on a provided card. Names are drawn 2 hours before the show. The production will be in Chicago at least through June, but the total length of the run is yet to be determined.
(I apologize for the dearth of photos, but I wasn’t able to find ones from this performance as of posting time!)