After nine Tonys and rapturous notices, Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” is still evidently selling tickets up to the time when Malia Obama can run for president. Can a touring edition of the scandalously irreverent, Latter-Day Saint-twitting tuner possibly live up to the rep? God, yes. The cast shows no evidence of being second tier, and production values are as lavish and performance style as crisp as at the show’s nativity. As long as you don’t go expecting the Second Coming, you’re unlikely to be let down by this breathlessly funny, solidly crafted musical satire.
Though Trey Parker and Matt Stone are known for a no-prisoners approach to wicked jesting — plenty of which is on display on the Pantages stage, in profoundly NC-17 terms — a deep appreciation of traditional musical theater was first observed in the remarkable production numbers of their hit pic “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.” In moving to the legit stage, the team was clearly neither slumming nor out of its element, here in collaboration with Robert Lopez, whose affinity for incorporating outrageousness into a mass smash was seen in “Avenue Q.”
In these hands, there’s no end of nasty hilarity at everyone’s expense as an odd couple of Mormon missionaries — upright, overproud Kevin (Gavin Creel) and doughy, needy Arnold (Jared Gertner) — tries to force the word of Jesus and Joseph Smith down the throats of Ugandan villagers, whose throats are already adequately beset by famine, AIDS and militia bayonets, thank you very much. (Don’t let anyone spoil that nasty hilarity for you in advance, incidentally. Surprise is a major farcical ingredient here.)
But there’s grace and gentleness in evidence as well, in the show’s recognition that what’s important in life is dealing with each other with eyes and hearts fully open, driven not by scriptural orthodoxy but by the inclusive spirit to be found within it.
The result is doubly subversive. A seemingly anarchic, revue-like shape disguises a strong plot arc with characters honestly changing and growing. And a seemingly blasphemous libretto actually makes a strong case for faith. It’s one musical both Monty Python and Richard Rodgers, and both Bill Maher (in attendance on opening night) and Mitt Romney (not), could find reasons to embrace.
Creel is a credentialed Broadway star and Gertner has done service as Arnold’s Gotham standby, so it’s no wonder their work is so seamlessly skillful. The energy and versatility of Samantha Marie Ware as Mormon recruit ingenue Nabulungi; Grey Henson as closeted Elder McKinley; and Kevin Mambo as village elder Mafala Hatimbi would make you swear these thesps must have originated their roles. Parker and Casey Nicholaw once again co-direct, evidently wide-awake at the switch.
Indeed, the entire cast exudes a joie de vivre rare in any tour. Then again, getting contracted to a pre-sold phenomenon must do wonders for any company’s morale. So must the clear expense and care taken to reproduce Scott Pask’s endlessly inventive original sets, Ann Roth’s costumes — a slide show of her renderings alone would be sure to bring laughs — and Brian MacDevitt’s clever lighting. (Only the lyrics suffer, at the hands of the Pantages’ overblown sound system.)
An element the Tony voters passed over — Nicholaw’s choreography, which fell to “Anything Goes” — may actually be the single most effective aspect of the Pantages spectacle. Running the gamut of show dancing from tap through ballet and jazz hands, Nicholaw deftly incorporates witty hommages to the likes of “The King and I,” Agnes deMille and “Fela!” Yet the numbers can’t be dismissed as mere pastiche, the cheers they elicit reflecting Nicholaw’s success at transforming emotionality into dance or, just as often, vice versa.