Theatre Review: “The Book of Mormon” (tour) @ Pantages Theatre, LA, 11/02/12

A year and a half was just the right amount of time before seeing The Book of Mormon musical again. If you’ve read my initial review of the production in previews back in February 2011, then you’ll know how much it negatively affected me. I still remember walking out of the theatre, flabbergasted by what I had seen and trying to put it all into words. I immediately sat down and typed my thoughts and feelings which soon became one of the most read, commented and talked about reviews I’ve written since I started this website in 2009.

One might ask, why would I go back to see a show that I had such a negative reaction to, but I did for two reasons: 1.) the unique circumstances surrounding the last time I had seen it definitely created some of the initial upset (which I’ll explain in a moment) and 2.) my best friend from high school, Jacob ben Widmar, is in the touring cast and I’ve yet to see him in a Broadway/tour/regional production since we were in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, back in high school.

The first time I saw The Book of Mormon I had (one week prior) seen the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Ruined at Berkeley Rep – a show that directly deals with the serious problems of women in Uganda. It was one of the most inspiring theatrical moments of my life. I walked out of the theatre wanting to help these women. It moved me greatly and seeing The Book of Mormon days after seeing this production was not the best idea. Even now, I still have a hard time with this part of the musical. I still don’t think that genital mutilation and rape is funny, in any type of way. The humor is wrapped in the usual raunchy South Park fare and I caught myself giggling every once in awhile, but mostly because I felt extremely uncomfortable, especially when a sold-out audience is riotously laughing throughout. That’s part of the brilliance, but also an annoyance – all at the same time.

Interestingly enough, the show has changed since I saw it in previews. This isn’t a surprise, by any means, as most shows change from previews to opening night and then it goes through more inevitable changes/updates when it goes out on tour. But, The Book of Mormon has changed significantly, in my eyes. The most noticeable change was the “tone” of the piece. The first time I saw it, the show was all about the jokes – it was one mocking/demeaning joke after another. It was all too much for me to stomach.

The jokes, the audience’s scornful laughter, and content created a very hostile environment for me as an audience member. The drunken couple behind me was making their own derogatory comments after each joke. Like I initially said, I felt like I was on the playground with schoolyard bullies that weren’t getting caught. The touring production, loaded with all of the “same” jokes in the script, created a tone that was endearing and almost forgivable.

I still sat in the audience, especially during “I Believe”, feeling very uncomfortable. These ideas and beliefs are held sacred to millions of Mormons across the country and world, and it’s still hard for me to listen to that song. I always empathize with the “bullied” and it’s not an equitable “fight”. But the tone was different… Gavin Creel (Elder Price) always played up the “heart” instead of the joke. His character suddenly became interesting and someone that I could relate to – frankly, something that I didn’t think was possible. His missionary companion, the funny Jared Gertner (Elder Cunningham) also tended toward the sincerity of his character, which allowed Elder Cunningham to also be a “real” person, as opposed to the overwrought, ridiculous caricature of an Elder that Josh Gad created in his Tony-nominated performance. (Sorry, I wasn’t really a fan.) The show suddenly wasn’t about the jokes, but rather the heart of the story. What a difference a new cast can make!!

The direction, by Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw, felt more sincere the second time around. In the song, “Turn it Off”, the lyrics joke about how Mormons turn off their “bad thoughts and feelings” and put on a happy face. When I saw it on Broadway, the entire joke became about Elder McKinley’s homosexuality – the problem being, that the entire cast of elders played into this joke and in affect, they were all gay. It became a “problem” of every Mormon missionary, instead of one elder’s struggle. A simple change of direction made an enormous difference and outcome to the song. Again, the tone changed from flippant to sincere, mocking to off-colored but funny, and ultimately had me chuckling instead of being upset. It was an incredible world of difference that was probably just a very simple suggestion.

The Book of Mormon is one of the most well-crafted musicals that has been produced on Broadway in years. The basic use of the standard musical comedy, updated and pushed to the limits with the content is basically genius. I could never disagree with you about the show’s merits – the songs, script, choreography, vocal arrangements, and orchestrations are all fantastic. But the content isn’t normal dinner conversation, by any means, and it definitely pushes the limits. So, if you are generally more conservative with your language, then this might not be the show for you.

While, it was a completely different experience the second time around, I’m still not a huge fan of the show. I definitely felt the difference in tone, which made the second time a lot more pleasant, but I still kept on asking myself throughout the show, “Why?” Hopefully, people leave with a deeper understanding/reflection of their own faith. Then, and only then, I might understand the “why”.

Has The Book of Mormon helped you reevaluate your faith? If so, how?

I would love for you to share in the comments.

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11 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “The Book of Mormon” (tour) @ Pantages Theatre, LA, 11/02/12

  1. What a fantastic review – I myself have never seen Book of Mormon and eagerly awaited priority booking in the UK – just as I was about to book I thought I would check out some reviews – I am so glad I did !! I would not like the content at all – I am really dismayed about this as my favourite actor ( Stephen Ashfield) has been cast in the UK production..- it will be the first show that I have not seen him in ! It is interesting that your opinion softened the second time you saw the show, however I still sense an uneasiness in your thoughts that I know I would share.

  2. I understand how moving Ruined at Berkeley Rep could be given the subject matter but I think your sensitivity after seeing it might have clouded your initial judgement regarding Book of Mormon. The masses will not be seeing “Ruined” but many times more will see BOM who uses humor to introduce the audience to these horrible events. While laughter fills the auditorium from the at time crude humor, it still give the audience something to think about. You can reach many more people with the humor than just giving them the depressing facts.

    1. Until THE BOOK OF MORMON starts advocating for the Ugandan people by having advertising in the playbill about what you can do to help, or collecting donations at the end of the show, then… I will disagree with you. Making fun of them is this derogatory fashion is not shedding “light” on the current issues and problems these people are facing. That’s like saying, let’s make an entire musical about child molestation and make fun of it and hopefully we can “reach many more people with humor than just giving them the depressing facts.” It’s completely illogical.

      1. This is a musical comedy, not a fund raiser to any cause. Showing the plight of the Ugandan villagers while still entertaining an audience paying top dollar is quite difficult and handled very well in BOM judging by the non ending rave reviews. The offensive topics like aids, war lords, female circumcision and other violence is amazingly based on what is happening there. I didn’t know until I did some research after the show that General Buck Naked was a war lord in the area (although he doesn’t use the middle name the show added). As for making fun of the Ugandan people, for the most part the villagers are shown in a positive manner, caring for each other, wanting better and yearning to live without fear of disease and murder. Other than some ignorance in their desperate attempt to find a solution for their troubles, I’m not seeing how they were the focal point of the joke. The joke was about the religious stories being preached and in this case, how they were modified and yet embraced by the people. I suggest you stick with straight dramas where the message is depressing but directly delivered.

  3. I feel that some of your opinions are understandable, but I think that most are unfair. You do point out to us that having just seen “Ruined” was not a good thing to go see right before this show. You also shed light on the fact that you saw it during Previews on Broadway, which anyone would know a show can and, in this case, does change DRASTICALLY from Previews to final. I cannot believe you felt it fair to put out a review that is so misleading.

    I also find it sad and extremely close-minded that you seem unable to understand how satire works. Or how people make jokes because if we don’t, we’ll cry. I think most people out there GET that bad things in this world happen, but if you really want to get through to people, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. I leave Book of Mormon feeling hopeful and as if I could do something that would make a difference in this world. I leave Ruined FEELING ruined, and unable to see any light.

    It’s far more difficult to write about hope and happiness and community in this awful world of ours than it is to simply relay these awful things to an audience.

    1. That’s just silly. I can’t have an opinion on a piece because it’s in previews?! I paid $80 to sit through that… I will and can have any opinion that I want. I never reported that I saw it after opening… it was very clear that I saw it in previews.

      That’s awesome — I’m the one who is close-minded and sad because I don’t understand “satire”. Unbelievable, when the show relentlessly makes fun of Ugandans and Mormons. And yet, I’m the close-minded/sad one.

      This is something I will never understand.

      1. You have every right to your own opinion but once you share them, they are subject to comment. The fact that you felt it relentlessly made fun of the Mormons is an indication you have different sensibilities than most people, including most Mormons. It makes fun relentlessly of the tenants of the religion but it portrays the Mormon elders as caring, giving people who want to help others. They are passionate and driven but maybe misguided.

    1. Broadway Critic – I didn’t call your opinion misguided. I said the Mormon’s are portrayed as passionate and driven but maybe misguided. As to my opinions versus yours, it’s my opinion and not anything more than that. I can show you how I think you missed the point but it could be me missing the point as well.

  4. I have a hard time taking your opinions seriously when you so obviously contradict yourself. In your first review, you said Josh Gad was “hilarious and the best part of the production.” Yet here, you’re not a fan?
    Anyway, I saw the show and never thought genital mutilation was the butt of any joke. What people are laughing at is the fact that the song is so upbeat and happy, yet they’re singing about these horribly depressing topics. By singing about AIDS, rape, and yes, genital mutilation, they show the hardships the Ugandans face on a daily basis. The writers are pointing out that this is why the Ugandans have lost their faith in God.

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