Hello! My name is Sister
FeatherStone, and I would like to share with you the most amazing play. That is…actually a musical. A musical that is now in the top five musicals of all time for me. Read that again. Book of Mormon: The Musical is one of the five finest musicals of all time. It’s up there with Les Miz. With Gypsy. Starlight Express. (Aha ha.)
In case you need a refresher, last year I posted a two-part review of the soundtrack, not thinking I would get the chance to see the show on Broadway or see it with the original cast. Well, I’ve now done both and am a better person for it. My thoughts on the music is mostly the same as it was last year, with a few positive changes in perspective now that I’ve seen the production. The “steak knives” line works in context. So I take back my earlier “meh” and raise it to a “ha.”
I will say that the visual I was given matched the mental pictures I had from just listening to the soundtrack. But it was far better than I had imagined, and seeing as I have a very vivid imagination, that’s no small thing. Also, this is a musical both for people who don’t like musicals and for people who adore musicals. Quite the hat trick, and further proof that those who dismiss Matt and Trey as “frat humor” simply don’t get just how clever you have to be to turn out the jokes they are capable of. Not to mention how truly wonderful the music is, how much of an homage to old school theater the show is, and how old Broadway drips from every scene.
Instead of hashing out every moment in the musical (which is both tedious and unfair to the cast and crew who deserve telling you all of that through the performance), I’ll point out moments that I found especially poignant or funny as a former devout member of the LDS church and long-time theater kid.
- I want to open mouth kiss whoever is responsible for all of the scrim-work on this show. I love a scrim. (For those not in the know: that is a special screen that hides what’s behind it unless a special light shines on it, revealing the action. It lends an ethereal, dream-like element to the production.) In this show, it’s used for flashbacks to ancient Mormons, Jesus, etc.
- Nothing made me happier than the white-blonde hair and square-jaws on all of the “Ancient Jewish Mormons.” Oh, Trey, you get it.
- Bonus points for having Jesus talk like a surfer. (“Body of Christ: sweet swimmer’s body, all muscled up and toned!”) And for lighting him up with strings of LED lights. And each and every hair flip.
- Having the proscenium trimmed with a frame that hearkens back to the Salt Lake Temple, complete with Angel Moroni at the top (which spins and “blows ye trumpet, like the wind blows” when the audience is addressed.)
- Having ZCMI (the Utah/Mormon-church owned department store) on the backdrops of the Mission Training Center (which is actually 70 miles away in Provo, but eh. Who’s counting?)
- Having the opening curtain mimic the “universe of Jesus” painting that is in the Visitor’s Center of the SLC Temple. I don’t know if anyone else picked up on that, but I howled with laughter at all of these little nods.
- Actually showing the Elders with their families at the airport before they left for their missions. This is such a massively huge part of Utah Mormon culture. There’s a wonderful joke here that I don’t want to spoil, but I laughed pretty hard at their send-off.
- One of the first things the Elders do when confronted with the “good Africans” in Uganda is to hold a baby. Of course they did.
- How unbelievably perfect every single cast member was. Everyone on the “African” ensemble was astoundingly talented, with voices that were so rich and lovely, all amazing dancers with magnetic presence. The Elders are just excellent, full stop.
- How every single “Elder” looked like they were straight out of BYU’s student union building. I mean, every single one of those men looked like a Gubler, a Smith, a Young, a Johnsen, and a Harmon. In fact, one of the ensemble that I spoke with at length after the show was a Johnsen from BYU. More on that later. Also, of course he was.
- How pitch perfect it is to have that one Elder whom everyone is drawn to, who knows intrinsically that he is The Man. And how everyone else defers power and judgment to him. Oh, did I know that Elder when I was in Utah. God, it’s obnoxious. And prevalent.
- Having the Elders in a type of temple garment that keeps true (somewhat) to who they are, but not making them actual temple garments, which would have brought the Mighty Fist of the LDS Church onto the production. Whew.
- One moment in my life that I needed to have happen was to see the Elders tap dance “Turn It Off.” It was everything I had hoped for, and even more. Their determined happiness continues to be one of the funniest aspects of the show, and one of the things that rings most true as a former-Mormon. By Gosh, you are going to be happy.
- Watching “I Believe” had me in tears. I am no longer a member. I do not believe one iota of the dogma that makes up the LDS Church. But gosh dang it, Elder Price’s face as he sings that he believes that “The Lord God created the Universe, and I believe that he sent His only son to die for my sins,” and the pain and longing on Andrew Rannells’ face as he performs that… It’s maybe one of the most moving moments in theater for me, next to the first time I saw Lea Salonga sing “On My Own,” and I mean that with every fiber of my being.
I would have loved to have talked to Mr. Rannells about that moment. I want to have confirmed that he is completely aware that his character at that moment is doing what I believe so many other Mormons are doing: convincing themselves to go along with it because the alternative is too frightening. (No family, no afterlife, no love, and so on.) Let’s face it, he’s completely going for that. I just want to chat him up. But that one song encompasses years of my own inner struggle with wanting to convince myself that I did believe. For me, it’s undeniably powerful.
So yes. I sat in my seat choked up, trying to hide my tears from the snotty, sour-faced women sitting next to me. (Why did you come to a comedy, ladies? What, you would have died if you laughed out loud or clapped your hands?) And if I may, Mr. Rannells’ voice is sublime. He fills that room with such a clear, beautiful voice, filled with emotion. And man, does he have excellent comic timing.
The entire cast is truly a work and a wonder – not one character is wasted. (Well, Maia Nkenge Wilson, the woman who plays Genghis Khan in the dream sequence, has a set of pipes on her that deserve a production all of her own and she wasn’t singled out at any other point.) Everyone plays multiple parts and does such a wonderful job of switching back and forth through the characters.
The physicality involved in this show is really amazing. The sheer number of huge production numbers is shocking, and when you see how flawlessly the actors move from huge tap-number to speaking dialog for two or three lines and moving into a second huge song and dance number, and then you realize that no one is winded, it’s mind-blowing. They’re all just at the top of their game.
Nikki M. James, who plays Nabulungi (Noxema and Neosporin were my favorite malaprops of her name) completely deserved her Tony win for this role. At one point it is just her on stage, her sweet voice singing of her longing to get out of the village where her clitoris will be cut off and to go to the magical unicorn dream state that is Oo-tah and the village of Sal Tlay Ka Siti. Never in your life will you hear the lines “Soon life won’t be so…shitty,” sung so beautifully. I almost wished the theater was twice the size just to hold her voice more comfortably. Not that it felt close, just that her voice is so powerful that I want to hear it to full capacity.
Rory O’Malley, who plays Elder McKinley (aka the one with Gay Thoughts), might be my most favorite person in the cast, which is saying something. He had so many wonderful moments as a comedic actor. All played with just the right amount of emphasis, just enough swish to remind you that Elder McKinley still thinks about Steve Blade (oh, Steve Blade!) on a desert island swimming with him in a sea of iniquity, yet still exuding authority as the District Leader. And remember that none of the missionary politics actually matter here.
Other actors who are so perfectly cast and do such a wonderful job of being in an ensemble that it takes you a day or two to really process just how well they performed are people like Lewis Cleale, who plays both the Mission President and Joseph Smith (And Elder Price’s father, who gets cornholed by Jeffrey Dahmer in the Hell dream sequence while rubbing his nipples.). Brian Tyree Henry, who plays General Buttfucking Naked and Satan, is in his first Broadway performance here. Outstanding. What a hell of a start to a Broadway career. Asmeret Ghebremichael, who plays the cynical woman in the village and is in many of the chorus numbers, has such an amazing presence that I could barely look away from her when she was on stage.
It’s just an outstanding cast, top to bottom. They all work well with each other, and if there’s in-fighting, I don’t want to know about it. I get the impression that they’re all so pleased to be a part of this production and it just pours out of everything that happens on stage.
There were a few – and I mean few – moments that I felt were off, or just sat wrong with me. Keep in mind that these moments are so tiny, and I am so in the minority, that I realize it will just seem pedantic. But you all expected me to love everything, didn’t you?
- I really felt that Elder Cunningham (the nerdy, socially awkward Elder Cunningham) lolling his tongue at Nabulungi when they decide to baptize her was so out of character for a loser Mormon kid. I’m not a fan of that gesture in the first place, but for a socially-stunted LDS kid? It’s pretty out of character. Then again, I didn’t build the character from the ground up like Josh did, and the audience found it hilarious.
- Elder Cunningham would never be allowed to baptize someone alone. Who cares, Laura, you’re thinking. Sorry, it’s very Mormon of me to want everything correct. It’s who we are. Even though I’m not Mormon any longer, I can’t get rid of that knee-jerk reaction.
- And when the other missionaries baptize the other villagers, they raise their left hand to the Square (hey-o, Freemasons!) when it should be the right. No one but me (and one member of the ensemble, ahem) cared about that.
Like I said, pedantic. And none of it took away from my enjoyment. The big number where the newly baptized villagers retell the story of Joseph Smith to the Mission President is absolutely a thing of beauty. The choreography for their song and dance about dysentery (“Shit go in the water, water go in the cup. Water go to the stomach, shit come out the butt!” [clack clack]) is… well, I’m kissing my fingers. The entire “African Ensemble” knocks every song out of the water. And one scene where a villager is…well, it goes wrong (I really want you to see it, I don’t want to spoil some of these moments) got a well-deserved gasp from the audience.
If you claim to love good theater and you aren’t planning on seeing this, you don’t love good theater.
After the show, I was the dork at the stage door wanting to tell the cast how much I appreciated their performance. I was able to talk briefly with a few cast members, and they all seemed delighted that I brought my actual Book of Mormon that I’ve had since I was 8 years old (my baptism gift) for them to sign. (Complete with gold marker.)
One of the ensemble members, Clark Johnsen, saw it and said quietly, “Is that your triple?” Oh, I love how we Mormons can find each other. He was perfectly hilarious in the cast, incredibly talented (no one in the cast anything less, really) and we chatted for several minutes about our both being from old Pioneer stock. He went to BYU, I turned them down and went to the U. He went on a mission, which I found wonderfully awful, seeing as I was preparing to go on a mission myself and was told to get my MRS instead. Oh, Mormon Church, never stop being dicks. Except, scratch that. Stop being dicks. At least stop being dicks to women and gays, let’s make those strides, hmm?
Fabulous experience, two days later and I’m still singing the songs. But then, I’ve been singing them for the past year. They’re just that catchy. (And just that well-written.) In the words of Ferris Beuller, “If you have the means, I highly recommend [going.] It’s so choice.”
In fact, I’ll be back on March 1. If you’re there, give a wave to the girl clutching her triple, hoping to get the remaining cast members’ autographs.
(If you’re interested in more about my time as a Mormon, and further song analysis, the link at the top of the review takes you to last year’s in depth discussion on those topics.)