Theater Review: Like So Many, I Believe in ‘The Book of Mormon’!

Book of Mormon TourWhat else can a reviewer write about that awesome musical The Book of Mormon? At least a few tons in word-weight have been deservedly heaped on this theatrical-satirical hysterical-comical (and not-so-secretly sweet) smash since it arrived on Broadway with a multi-award-winning thunderclap more than three years ago.

Now the national tour (more precisely, the second national tour company) has reached Nashville’s Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and brothers and sisters of the theatrical appreciation community I can testify that I believe – though I became a believer when I first heard the original cast album soon after its March 2011 recording.

Alright, for those that don’t know the setup: The all-too-assured Elder Price and his very nerdy companion Elder Cunningham are sent to Uganda by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for two years of mission work. They end up in a remote northern village of that strife-torn land where a brutal warlord with a very profane name is terrorizing the locals. The naïve and overly optimistic duo try to share their church’s teachings (which only Price has read) but with violence, famine, poverty and AIDS, the good citizens aren’t exactly pining for more info on the All-American faith Price and Cunningham want to share with them. And when Cunningham decides to convert them with lessons inspired more by Gene Roddenberry and J.R.R. Tolkien than Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, matters take a very unexpected turn.

Book of Mormon TourI know there are still some skeptics, but let me say this to the non-believers (though I think your number is scant): even in the body-parts-and-vulgarity thread South Park creators Trey Parker (a co-director of this show with Choreographer Casey Nicholaw) and Matt Stone provided this tale there’s a great deal of wit and sharp comment on the very human trait of looking without seeing and hearing without listening. The score devised in concert with the EGOT-winning Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, Frozen) is a wonderful mix of styles and musical moods that are happily familiar and fresh.

Nicolaw’s choreography is a high-energy valentine to musical theater and those that love it; the moves are so clear, sharp and joyful that you might well wish you could jump onstage and join the seemingly never-tired performers that execute their steps brilliantly. Those Mormon Boys add luster to any moment.

And that brings me to the some of the triple-threats at the top of the bill. David Larsen is, well, incredible as the thinks-he-knows-it-all Elder Price; “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” “I Believe” and “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” are as good coming from him as from the original cast’s spectacular Andrew Rannells because like that performance Larsen puts his own wonderful stamp on the role. Cody Jamison Strand as Elder Cunningham is a sheer delight, whether  in a funny moment, a humorous number like “Man Up”  or sweet songs like “I Am Here for You” and the tender-comic “Baptize Me” duet with Nabulungi (Denée Benton, whose awesome pipes get a great showcase in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”). The whole ensemble is really the best – a special shoutout to Eric Huffman as the sexually-confused Elder McKinley for his hilarious contributions to “Turn It Off”– and their work on such numbers as “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (I’m not translating that here) and “Joseph Smith American Moses” are just two proofs of their entertaining excellence.

Book of Mormon TourTerrific Scott Pask sets, Ann Roth costumes, Brian MacDevitt lights and Brian Ronan sound add to the fun. Music Director Susan Draus and her colleagues – including Nashville’s own Steve Patrick, Barry Green, Jimmy Bowland, Betsy Lamb and Ted Wilson while the show is in the Music City – are seamless and superb as they go from song to song, style to style and mood to mood. If there’s a better American musical in this young century than The Book of Mormon, I haven’t seen it – see, I’m writing like a true believer.

The Book of Mormon runs through Sunday in TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall (505 Deaderick St.) Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tonight, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Special Note: The remaining shows are virtual sell-outs, so call the TPAC box office at (615) 782-4040 and ask whether there are any recently released seats or try your luck each day with a ticket lottery where the winners will get seats for $25 per entry. Contestants must print their name and the number of tickets – one or two – on each entry and then turn those entries into TPAC’s box office, which will accept entries 2 ½ hours before each performance. To win, the entrant must be present during the drawing. Only one entry per person and two tickets per winner is allowed; folks at TPAC will check for duplicate entries so be on your best behavior about that. One final point – there’s plenty of foul language and crude references.

*Photos by Joan Marcus courtesy The Book of Mormon Tour and TPAC.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman’s “The People vs Larry Flynt” among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).