Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Best Show of 2011

The Book of Mormon

Andrew Rannells in The Book of Mormon

“Hello.  My name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book.”

With those innocent words, set to an ingenious sing-song melody, begins one of the most outrageously offensive, entertaining, and expertly crafted musicals of the last 20 years.  The Book of Mormon has taken Broadway by storm, winning every best musical prize imaginable and becoming a sold-out sensation on a level not seen since Wicked. It’s understandable that those who have yet to see Mormon may be suspicious of its ability to live up to the insane level of hype surrounding it.  But I promise you that it not only meets, but handily exceeds any and all expectations you may have.

My first time seeing the show (it’s so good I’ve made the time to see it twice more, and am already contemplating a fourth visit) ranks as one of the most memorable nights of the theatre in my life.  The air of excitement was palpable, as nobody knew quite what to expect from this mystery-shrouded show.  No publicity stills had been released, only the vaguest of plot summaries was available, and the musical numbers weren’t even listed in the Playbill.  I personally was hoping for something pretty exceptional, because Trey Parker and Matt Stone proved with the South Park movie they know what an expertly constructed musical looks like.  But even I wasn’t prepared for how jaw-droppingly amazing Mormon turned out to be.

The show has everything.  It features an incredible score stuffed with inventive, catches tunes, played by a nine piece band that through some theatrical trickery I honestly don’t understand sounds like the large orchestras of Broadway’s golden age.  There are so many jokes, both obvious and subtle, that it’s impossible to catch them all the first time through.  At least once during the show, you will be genuinely shocked and/or offended by what’s happening onstage (even hardcore South Park fans cannot anticipate some of the things Parker and Stone have gotten away with).  And most gloriously of all, the show has heart.  I doubt anyone thought the words “sweet” and “endearing” would be applied to a show written by this pair, and yet those words perfectly capture the overriding spirit of a show that is ultimately a celebration of both old-school Broadway and the healing power of religious faith (although Mormonism certain gets lovingly lambasted more than once).

And creating this atmosphere of giddy farce is one of the hardest working, most talented casts to ever grace a Broadway stage.  From top to bottom, the cast is filled with true triple threats who manage to stand out without ever upstaging their fellow castmates.  Foremost among this talented bunch are Tony-nominated stars Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, both giving career-making performances as Elders Price and Cunningham.  It’s nearly impossible to decide who is funnier, although my personal vote goes to Rannells, who’s hilariously narcissistic Elder Price is a comic goldmine who doesn’t have the benefit of the kind of mugging allowed by the broadly written Cunningham.  They are so evenly matched that they likely split Tony votes enough to allow Norbert Leo Butz to walk off with this year’s Best Actor statuette. 

Also Tony-nominated without winning is Rory O’Malley, who brings down the house nightly with his performance of “Turn It Off.”  Without spoiling things for those who haven’t seen it, the number contains what is my favorite moment of the entire year (it involves vests).  It’s in essence an expertly executed sight gag (I still have no idea how they did it), and is the perfect illustration of why The Book of Mormon is so brilliant.  The show milks all of the expected humor out of a situation, and just when you think it’s out of ideas it comes up with one final, unexpected capper that thrills you with its ingenuity and leaves you rolling in the aisle.  I audibly gasped in delight when it happened, and being able to provide that kind of sheer, unadulterated joy is an example of musical comedy at its absolute best.

The one performer who did manage to win a Tony for her efforts is the absolutely radiant Nikki M. James.  Her Nabalungi is instantly lovable, a perfect Disney princess trapped in this warped version of the Third World.  She sings like an angel and grounds the evening with a genuine heart, especially evident during her earnest performance of the show’s big ballad, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.”  Yet she is also capable of comic genius, and can play dirty just like the boys (her first appearance onstage is during a particularly offensive song about God).

I could go on and on about this show.  The direction is perfect, and Casey Nicholaw has graduated to the top tier of Broadway directors for his work on this show.  He expertly crafts the evening to yield the greatest possible number of laughs, while ensure that the show’s heart and message never get lost in the background or buried under too much shtick.  He has given the show a parade of ingeniously realized musical numbers, and keeps its madcap energy from flagging all the way through the final curtain.  The lighting, sets, and costumes are all phenomenal, supporting the story and setting without ever overshadowing it or becoming complex for spectacle’s sake.

I adore this show.  It may quite possibly be my favorite of all time, and that is not a title I hand out lightly.  It is easily the Best Show of 2011, and while tickets are hard to come by, they are definitely worth seeking out.  To paraphrase the opening number’s lyrics, this show could change your life.

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