The Book of Mormon got headlines for its decidedly un-Broadway creators (the brains behind South Park) and its decidedly un-PC storyline (two Mormon missionaries expecting a cushy two-year vacation end up proselytizing in AIDS-striken, warlord-ruled Uganda). It got Tonys, critical acclaim and a boatload of money for being one of the best musicals to hit New York in years, satirizing its subjects and other Broadway musicals while never letting a good joke betray the show’s fundamental premise: “an atheist’s love letter to religion.”
At the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $41 to $132 before ticket fees and can be ordered at 414-273-7206 or marcuscenter.org.
May 19 to 31
“The Book of Mormon” is one of the funniest and most profane shows to appear on a musical stage. Maybe that’s to be expected, considering it’s the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of “South Park,” working together with “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez.
What’s unexpected about this Tony Award-sweeping hit, playing through Oct. 6 at Chicago’s Bank of America Theater, is the sometimes sweet Rogers and Hammerstein-style innocence that adds a novel dimension to the production.
The storyline is simple. Elder Price (Nic Rouleau) and Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt, see p. 38) have just graduated from Mormon missionary training. They, along with the other new missionaries, eagerly await their assignments. Squeaky clean Price, a young go-getter probably voted most likely to succeed by his high school class, wants to do his mission work in Orlando, Fla. Fuzzy-headed bumbler Cunningham, probably voted least likely to even be noticed, is happy to go anywhere.
The pair ends up assigned to Uganda, which, they quickly discover, is nothing like the Africa of “The Lion King.”
Price and Cunningham join an existing Mormon mission – headed by closeted Elder McKinley (Pierce Cassidy) – that hasn’t baptized a single Ugandan. Their would-be converts live with crushing poverty, rampant AIDs and a local warlord (David Aron Damane) intent on circumcising every female in the village.
Price decides he will deliver the mission from its ineffectiveness, but it’s the bumbling Cunningham, with his “colorful” take on Mormon theology, who saves the day, so to speak. In his version of Mormonism, the prophet Joseph Smith is in the same league as Darth Vader and the Angel Moroni descended from the starship Enterprise. The natives find this brand of the religion far more appealing and approachable.
Despite its offbeat nature, “The Book of Mormon” plays like a classic musical. “Hello,” the show’s hilarious opening number, features a singing cadre of doorbell-ringing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries. They populate the stage with their traditional short-sleeved white shirts, conservative neckties and bright, eager smiles.
The 150-minute production ends on a similar note, with a host of numbers in between, including expressing the Ugandans’ longing to visit paradise in “Salta-Laka-City.”
Strong performances carry the show, and few are stronger than that of Ben Platt as Elder Cunningham. His buoyant naivety, sifted through a Bobcat Goldthwait-brand of psychosis, provides the perfect channel for his mixed-metaphor theology.
As Price, Nic Rouleau offers a perfect, yet human blend of vanity and sanctity. He helps make the musical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” – complete with dancing demons, a four-armed Satan and familiar Hades denizens Hitler, Genghis Kahn, Johnny Cochran and Jeffrey Dahmer – a true show-stopper.
Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is simple but strong, and the show’s energy runs nonstop through to the traditional feel-good Broadway finish. But the profanity and irreverence make the production very non-traditional and decidedly adult fare.
“The Book of Mormon” successfully sets Parker and Stone’s uniquely sassy “South Park”-style humor to music, creating a distinctly 21st century work.
On the stage
“The Book of Mormon” plays through Oct. 6 at the Bank of America Theater, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago. For tickets, visit www.chicago-theater.com/theaters/bank-of-america-theater/the-book-of-mormon.php.
After being accepted at New York’s Columbia University two years ago, actor Ben Platt was forced to defer his college career – not once, but twice. Fortunately, he’s been skipping school for all the right reasons.
In fall of 2011, the Los Angeles-born performer was Columbia-bound when Hollywood came calling. Platt was awarded the role of nerdy, “Star Wars”-obsessed Benji Applebaum in the Universal film “Pitch Perfect,” starring opposite Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. By all accounts, his performance was a hit.
In fall 2012, Platt once again postponed his education to re-manifest his inner geek, picking up the role of nerdy, “Star Wars”-obsessed Elder Cunningham in the Chicago production of “The Book of Mormon.” The gig has made the 19-year-old actor a star in one of the hottest shows in Chicago.
“‘The Book of Mormon’ is the story about perhaps the most perfect Mormon, played by Nic Rouleau, paired with the most screwed-up, weird Mormon, which I play,” says Platt. “I didn’t have to do too much research for the part.”
In the story, Elder Price (Rouleau) and Elder Cunningham (Platt), two eager Mormon missionaries, are assigned to save sinners in Uganda, a cynical population that does not believe the Mormon god or anyone else can ease their struggles. While Elder Price fails, Elder Cunningham succeeds by preaching his own brand of Mormon theology, one that borrows heavily from “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” and other pop fantasy works. To non-believers, those stories sound no less plausible than the Book of Mormon.
As a man-child adrift in a not-so-promising land, Platt delivers a delightfully lunatic performance. Josh Gad, who earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Elder Cunningham on Broadway, used his ample girth as a comedic device to separate his character from the other elders. Platt’s trim frame does not afford that opportunity, so he created his own brand of crazy to make his character stand out from the other Mormon elders.
“My character is inappropriate, wants to be everyone’s best friend and says wrong things at wrong times,” Platt says. “He is more than a little ADD and doesn’t know when to stop talking, but he has the best intentions.”
Originally from L.A.’s Westwood neighborhood, Platt is the son of theatrical and film producer Marc Platt, perhaps best known as the producer of Broadway’s “Wicked.”
Platt has been acting on stage since he was eight years old, making him more seasoned than many of his contemporaries. He appeared in Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” and “Irma La Douce” opposite Katie Holmes. “Pitch Perfect” was his first major film, and it presented a host of different challenges from his stage work.
“I’d been brought up on stage, and I’ll never love anything as much as I love stage, but I enjoyed the film experience,” Platt says. “The good part is you’re working on this project piece by piece and can really concentrate on perfecting only a few lines at a time. On the flip side, there’s nothing like experiencing the whole character chronologically as we do on stage.”
Platt’s Elder Cunningham, Platt’s character is fully realized and surprisingly appealing as a counterpoint to the other elders. Platt commends Parker and Stone for avoiding taking cheap shots at Mormonism for the sake of laughs, despite their obvious obsession with the religion.
“The interesting thing about the show is how much heart it has,” Platt says. “It’s a big, riotous evening out, but audiences fall in love with the show because they care about the narrative, and people become very invested in Price and Cunningham and want to see them get along.”
If there’s a moral to “The Book of Mormon,” Platt says it’s about finding faith in the community and the people you know rather than fantastic tales and things that can’t be known. For the character of Elder Cunningham, it’s also about accepting people as they are and for what they can contribute.
While “The Book of Mormon” marks another big success for the young up-and-comer, maybe next year he’ll find time to get back to school.
In the same way Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Wicked” had an impact on tween girls, his rock musical “Godspell” struck a chord with impressionable ’70s adolescents searching for meaning amid a tumultuous time. An American counterpart to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell” has been reissued in a double-disc set that also includes the soundtrack to the 1973 movie version, starring out Canadian-Jewish actor Victor Garber as your lord and savior.
The Book of Mormon
Forty years after “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” stirred up religious fervor on Broadway, religion made a comeback of sorts on the Broadway stage last year. Far more irreverent and inspired, the Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” is unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Co-written by “South Park” masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone with music by Robert Lopez (of “Avenue Q” fame), “The Book of Mormon” is as hysterically funny as it is shocking. It combines Mormon teachings, current events and some of the foulest language ever uttered onstage not in a Mamet play. Still going strong on Broadway, the musical launches a national tour in Denver in August 2012 and a new company launches in Chicago in December 2012. Here’s your chance to get the original Broadway cast recording.
Based on the hit Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same name, “Sister Act” isn’t exactly “The Sound of Music” for the 21st century, but it has charms. Pushing the time period back to the disco era affords Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Little Mermaid”) a chance to have some fun with the disco songbook. But there aren’t any of the kind of memorable numbers for which Menken has come to be known.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Fifty years since its Broadway debut, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is a cute musical comedy about climbing the corporate ladder, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. It’s been revived a couple of times – in 1995 (starring Matthew Broderick and featuring Megan Mullally and Victoria Clark) and most recently in 2011 (starring a singing and dancing Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe). It was also turned into a 1967 movie. The 2011 Broadway cast recording of features delights such as “I Believe in You,” “Brotherhood of Man,” “Been a Long Day” and “The Company Way.”
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Catch Me If You Can” and the aforementioned “Sister Act” aren’t the only recent Broadway musicals based on movies. “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, comes from the Pedro Almodovar film of the same name starring Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, Sherie Rene Scott and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The fiasco-plagued “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” with music and lyrics by U2’s Bono and The Edge, is not only associated with the “Spider-Man” movie series but also the Marvel comic book series. Still running on Broadway as of this writing, it’s the kind of rock musical that is not only the antithesis of original and unforgettable shows such as “Godspell,” but one that could have benefited from the kind of humor in “The Book of Mormon.”
Nine Lives: A Musical Adaptation, Volume 1
Like “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which began in a similar way, Colman DeKay and Paul Sanchez’s “Nine Lives: A Musical Adaptation, Volume 1,” is based on the book by Dan Baum. Featuring a stellar line-up of performers, including Michael Cerveris, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Michelle Shocked and Harry Shearer, “Nine Lives” is a musical oral history of nine New Orleans residents between the twin catastrophes of hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Katrina (2005).
The Trumpet of the Swan and Sweet Bye and Bye
This pair of recordings focuses on the intersection of the literary world and the stage. “The Peter and The Wolf”-like “The Trumpet of the Swan,” subtitled “a novel symphony for actors and orchestra,” is based on the book by E. B. White (“Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web”). Adapted by Marsha Norman (“’night Mother”), with music by Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years” and “Parade”), the recording features performances by Kathy Bates, Mandy Moore, Martin Short, John Lithgow and others. “Sweet Bye and Bye,” with lyrics by poet Ogden Nash, book by humorist S.J. Perelman and illustrator Al Hirschfeld, and music by Vernon Duke, the work was a legendary failure in musical theater history. A new world premiere recording of the futuristic musical features Georgia Engel, John Cullum, Rebecca Luker, Marin Mazzie and Philip Chaffin.