Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Book of Mormon -- The Bushnell

Mark Evans with First National Tour. Photo: Joan Marcus
These Mormons Get a Warm Welcome When They Ring The Bushnell’s Doorbell
By Lauren Yarger
Hello! The Mormons ringing bells at a special two-week engagement at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts are receiving a warm welcome from the packed audience, who provides lots of laughter while watching the antics of two Mormons trying to survive a missions trip from hell. 

The Book of Mormon, winner of nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, is the brain child of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, four-time Emmy Award-winning creators of the animated series “South Park,” and Tony Award-winner Robert Lopez, co-creator of the long-running hit musical comedy, Avenue Q. Together the three wrote the book, music and lyrics and Parker Co-Directs with Casey Nicholaw, who also choreographs.

The show is as funny as it is irreverent, and there’s something to offend everyone, not just Mormons.

Elder Price (Mark Evans) has always been a model Mormon and he anxiously awaits his assignment for the missions trip required of all men in the church. He knows God expects him to do something amazing and he hopes it will be in the most fabulous location in the world. Orlando!

His hopes are dashed however, when he is sent to Uganda and partnered with needy and nerdy Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) who has a history of telling lies.

The group of missionaries in Uganda, led by Elder McKinley (Grey Henson), are really happy to have new recruits, because so far their efforts to convert and baptize the people of the impoverished village have been unsuccessful. The villagers just have other things on their minds, like AIDS and a dictatorial General (Corey Jones), who believes all females should have their genitals mutilated. They’re a hard sell and dance out their general philosophy of life and gesture with their middle fingers to the heavens in “"Hasa Diga Eebowai, which translated means, “Fu** You, God.”

Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube) glimpses a hope for salvation in the Mormons’ stories of a paradise named Salt Lake City, however, and encourages the villagers to give them a listen. When Price suffers a crisis of faith and leaves, the task is left to Cunningham, who unfortunately has never read the actual Book of Mormon (because it’s too boring, he says). Wanting to impress the beautiful Nabulungi, even though he never can seem to quite pronounce her name correctly, he invents his own stories to try to give the people what they want.

The missionaries offer advice and support in two very funny numbers: “Turn it Off,” where McKinley, struggling with same-sex attraction, advises the men to repress any bad feelings by turning them off like a light switch, and “"Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which shows what will happen if they give in to bad thoughts.

Cunningham’s bizarre stories, combining the life of Joseph Smith (Ron Bohmer), Jesus Christ, Brigham Young and characters from Star Wars, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, cause the villagers to join the church and be baptized, but also find their way into a riotously funny and highly offensive dramatic presentation performed as a surprise for the visiting church president.

This tour is quite well done, with strong vocals for the leads. Evans nails “I Believe” and Ncube shows a lovely soprano in her national tour debut. O’Neill, making his professional debut, shows solid comic ability as the awkward Cunningham (O’Neil, who has toured internationally with his sketch comedy duo The Chris and Paul Show, has won Best Actor in a Comedy in the New York Television Festival and was a nominee for Best Newcomer in the 2011 Montreal Sketch Festival & Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Nicholaw’s choreography lends to the zaniness on stage, as do Ann Roth’s costumes (encompassing everything from white shirts with name tags to African tribal garb to Mormon history and hell characters). Scott Pask’s sets convey locations, but are a bit tongue in cheek too.

The big problem with this production is the sound (design by Brian Ronan). In Mortensen Hall, the volume was way too loud, particularly on group songs and the mix wasn’t good, allowing solos consistently to be drowned out by backup singers. Individual words often were hard to hear, which is especially disappointing given the very clever lyrics.

In Hartford, the production will conduct a pre-show lottery at the box office, making 20 tickets available at $25 apiece. Entries will be accepted in the box office lobby beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance; each person will print their name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for the tickets, priced at $25 each. Payment for these ticket(s) must be in cash.  Only one entry is allowed per person.  Cards are checked for duplication prior to drawing.  Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets.  Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.

Say "Hello!" to these bell-ringing Mormons through March 30. Performances: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday 1 and 6:30 pm. Tickets $25-$100. 860-987-5900;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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