‘The Book of Mormon’ at The Kennedy Center by Amanda Gunther

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“Hello! My name is Elder Gunther and I’m here to spread the word!” Spread the word that a great life changing book is sweeping into the Nation’s Capital and taking sold out audiences by storm! With a mere nine Tony Awards under its belt, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book; The Book of Mormon is now appearing live at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House Stage. With award winning music, book, and lyrics from co creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone; this irreverent musical sensation is sure to win a place in your heart, converting you to a true believer— a believer that phenomenal theatre is still out there and that the world of Broadway has not yet run out of hilarious original ideas. Directed by Tony Award-Winner Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker with Musical Supervision by Stephen Oremus, this ridiculously absurd musical is the upbeat, spectacular of the summer!

Mark Evans and Derrick Williams in 'The Book of Mormon' First National tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Mark Evans and Derrick Williams in ‘The Book of Mormon’ First National tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.

From the humble beginnings of a pristine tabernacle to the crumbling third world flatlands of Uganda, Scenic Designer Scott Pask brings a world of Broadway quality scenery to the show. The African sets have particular attention to detail and are a ruddy derelict hovel, a far cry from the polished first world from which the missionaries came. Creating layers into the set for numbers like “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “All American Prophet,” Pask transforms the stage into a fully functional dreamscape for these wildly over the top production numbers.

Choreographer Casey Nicholaw infuses the show with astounding dance routines, all of which contain the flashy razzle dazzle elements of true Broadway choreography. The snazzy tap routine featured in “Turn It Off” is a crisp and clean routine featuring perfect synchronization among the Mormon ensemble with tight kicks and brilliant energy. Nicholaw’s varying styles are well practiced throughout the production, infusing more tribal based movements into numbers like “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” And “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” brings the show’s most involved dance routine complete with hellacious dancing demons in fiery top hats and swinging pitchfork canes. Nicholaw’s choreography is nothing short of sensational in this production and it drives the upbeat tempo of the show.

The show itself is wildly uproarious, writers Parker, Lopez, and Stone leaving no corner untouched with the humorous intent of offending everyone. Ripe with sexual innuendo seamlessly woven into the songs and spoken scenes, the play has the perfect balance of subtly and blatant in your face ‘bad-taste humor.’ It’s a raunchy riotous ride that uses lyrical dissonance to achieve scintillating laughs in numbers like “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” an African dreaming-style lullaby that sounds so serene until you listen to what the character is actually singing. Punctuated with quirky over-exaggerated stereotypes in every facet of the production it’s no wonder the musical swept the Tony Awards. Beneath it all is a brilliant satire formed around the humors of the three creators, focusing heavily on the Mormon religion and it’s door-to-door approach; a universally relatable element that draws in every audience member that is able to tolerate the unabashed and unapologetic style of humor.

Powerful voices are aplenty in this touring production, both the African ensemble and the ensemble of Mormons make their voices heard in numbers like “Joseph Smith American Moses” and “I Am Africa” respectively.  Members of the African ensemble feature thick, yet clearly executed, Ugandan accents and manage to carry these while singing. The Mormon ensemble men have a sharp truncated sound that rings true to a church choir, especially when raising their voices to the rafters at the beginning of the opening number “Hello.”

What makes the show so phenomenal is the litany of clever characters interspersed throughout the performance. General Butt-Fucking Naked (Derrick Williams) is one of those characters. A diabolical dictator type villain, Williams commands a stage presence that is truly fierce. While having no songs of his own, Williams does appear as a heinous-looking Lucifer-Demon in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and his overall existence in that number would be truly terrifying, if the number itself wasn’t so damn funny. With a rich earthy base sound in his voice he crafts a vile antagonist for the show, dabbling into dark humors to keep his character from being too terrible.

On the other end of the scale, a light-hearted foppish fellow by the name of Elder McKinley (Grey Henson) is the beacon of brightness at the Mormon Mission Ugandan Outpost. Henson’s character has deeply repressed homosexual tendencies and he plays up the stereotypically flamboyant affectations with a flaming flair. His voice is chipper and his sprightly energy is wildly contagious, bursting like wildfire to the other Mormons for “Turn It Off.” His vocal prowess knows no bounds as he leads this number as well as “I Am Africa” to a soaring success.

Keep your ears out for a belting beauty, with the show’s most comical line – “something about maggots – sung at the top of his lungs by The Doctor (Josh Breckenridge). Featured in various ensemble numbers Breckenridge’s booming voice is astounding and definitely lands the humor of that absurd line every time he sings it! Mafala Hatimbi (Kevin Mambo) provides another intense voice as the village’s leader. Featured as the opening singer in “Hasa Diga Eebowai” Mambo gives the audience a solid sampling of his big booming voice, really riling up the natives and pumping them full of gleeful energy in the most lyrically dissonant song of the show.

Hatimbi’s daughter, Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware) has a much softer but sweeter voice. That is not to say that Ware is without power when needed. Her naiveté ripples delicately through her charming character, and she is a delightful addition to the cast. Her solo “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” provides endless comic insight to the show’s irreverent and bizarre nature as well as giving her a chance to vocally express her emotions. The duet Ware shares with Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) “Baptize Me” is a hilarious metaphor that reeks of sexual overtones. Their voices harmonize with resplendence; however you’ll be too busy watching the insanely hysterical dance they do to notice.

O’Neill is a spastic little chipmunk in this giddy role. With all the determination and insistence of  an unflappable ray of sunshine, O’Neill gives this character such a strong presence that he could make Hitler convert! He is a character actor through and through, his sunny disposition not dampened in the least by being constantly trodden upon. Starting with a meek and meager voice he literally blows the audience away when he starts belting out for “Man Up” creating this completely unexpected powerhouse sound that rocks the audience through the Act I finale.

The Book of Mormon First National Tour Company. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The Book of Mormon First National Tour Company. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The awkward relationship that quickly develops between O’Neill and his mission buddy Elder Price (Mark Evans) is a hoot. Never in a Broadway musical has there been a more mismatched awkward pair! Evans and O’Neill share several duets, including “You And Me (But Mostly Me)” which showcase their divine voices together as one with perfect harmonies and amazing intonation.

Evans is a stunning sensation, stealing the show with his hammy moments that cheat out to the audience and his overall indefatigable confidence. Until of course, he becomes flattened by the flatlands— learning quickly that Africa is nothing like “The Lion King.” His voice is nothing short of incredible; blasting out full grounded optimism and hope in his big solo “I Believe.” He literally rocks “All American Prophet” with a Donnie Osmond flair that transforms this insane song into a pop-Broadway showtune-hybrid tent revival. Evans is a masterpiece in this role and makes it known that he’s got the spirit.

This show will take you to hell in a hand basket but it will be the fastest, funniest, most furious ride down that you’ve ever ventured upon; you won’t want to miss it!

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

The Book of Mormon plays through August 18, 2013 on the Opera House Stage at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts— 2700 F Street NW in the heart of Washington, DC. Patrons interested in tickets are encouraged to check the box office for last-minute availability and can do so by calling (202) 467-4600 or by checking online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.