Theater: Casting Keeps Mormon Fresh

The cast of the first national tour of “The Book of Mormon,” from the creators of “South Park” and “Avenue Q.” Credit: Joan Marcus

I have to admit I groaned just a little bit when the 2015-16 Broadway Across America season was announced. Yes, “The Book of Mormon” was returning to the region again.

I can’t begrudge the producers and local performing arts centers for wanting to cash in. Broadway touring productions are the biggest money makers for the centers and the Tony Award-winning best musical sold out a nearly four-week run at the Broward Center in 2013 and returned to Miami’s Arsht Center and the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach for successful shorter runs in 2014.

“The Book of Mormon”—penned by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” composer Robert Lopez is wickedly funny—but I wondered if South Florida audiences would be subjected to the commercial wonder every season just as we have with that tween sensation “Wicked.”

Now, I’ve seen “Wicked” at least five times over the years and admittedly will puke if I have to listen to that screeching green witch one more time. Will “Mormon” come to elicit the same involuntary response? After catching the musical one more time, I venture to say no!

While green make-up can transform just about any good soprano into Elphaba, “The Book of Mormon,” with an army of spit-shined singing and dancing missionaries and a village of shit-talking Ugandan tribesmen can’t rely on gimmicks to make its sell.

It became apparent during the opening number of the second national tour, which made a stop at the Broward Center last week and continues through Sunday, that brilliant casting would save the day, offering audiences a performance that was worthy of the original Broadway production.

Here’s the “Cliff’s Notes” summary for the couple of South Florida queens who didn’t rush to the box office the first or second go arounds: The show tells the story of a team of mismatched young Mormon missionaries, the pious Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and the naive Elder Cunningham (Chad Burris) who has a slight issue accurately recounting the stories in “The Book of Mormon.” The pair are sent to Uganda to proselytize the natives and encounter a vicious warlord, General Butt Fucking Naked (David Aron Damane). Along the way, they learn a few lessons about life and faith from the locals—hint: “It’s a metaphor!”

The clear standout on press night was Burris, an understudy who finally got his night in the spotlight. With perfect comedic timing, his Elder Cunningham was dimwitted, goofy and downright lovable, capturing the hearts of the audience early in the show. He lent a star quality to the screw-up missionary that I hadn’t seen from other actors before. Burris may be a character actor, but was great as that character.

Another outstanding performance was offered by Daxton Bloomquist as Elder McKinley, the mission leader who struggles to “turn off” his feelings for boys as he tap dances—sequins, jazz hands and all—around the team’s village quarters. And Candace Quarrels proved she had the vocal chops for the female lead, Cunningham’s love interest Nabulungi.

Any cast has plenty to work with, from the irreverent script and tuneful songs to director Casey Nicolaw’s brilliant choreography, but this cast made my third time at “The Book of Mormon” as wonderful as the first.

As a quick aside, I chuckled while flipping through the Playbill and noticing three full page ads from the Church of Latter Day Saints encouraging audiences to “read the book.” I have it on good authority if you visit the link and leave your information, the church will have two missionaries at your door within 48 - 72 hours. They sure are cute young men.

“The Book of Mormon” plays at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale through Sunday, Feb. 7. For show times and tickets, go to BrowardCenter.org.


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