A parade of dudes in cargo shorts and Keen sandals schlepping to the Kennedy Center can only mean one thing: The Book of Mormon is back for another summer run at the Kennedy Center. The 2013 tour stop, you may recall, shut down the Kennedy Center’s website not once, but twice when tickets went on sale in stages. The major difference between the debut run and this reprisal is that seats are easier to come by, although you’ll still have to line up for a $25 standing-room-only ticket, or pay nearly $100 bucks to sit pretty much anywhere but the balcony.
Otherwise, it’s not so much the musical that has changed, but that the tide of success continues for so many cast and creatives associated with the show. The original actors who played missionaries Elder Cunningham and Elder Price when the show opened on Broadway have gone on not to save hundreds of lost souls but to become major stars in film (Josh Gad, ever heard of Frozen?) and TV (Andrew Rannells, some show called Girls).
Even the lead’s replacements seem charmed: Ben Platt, who spent a year sniffling and sputtering as Elder Cunningham, got to star in Pitch Perfect 2 and will also take the lead in the maybe-Broadway bound musical Dear Evan Hansen, which opens at Arena Stage next month.
Mormon’s director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw continues to bemuse audiences with his codpiece fetish and penis joke prowess. He received a Tony nomination this year for Something Rotten!,a Shakespearean spoof that features an ensemble full of closeted gay Puritans instead of Mormons. In fact, seeing the two shows so close together, as I did this spring, and noting their similarities shed a divine light on why Mormon continues to be so popular. Both tackle novel subject matter (for musicals) and tap into nearly universal curiosities (What the fuck do Mormons believe? Who the fuck was Shakespeare anyway?) Both quote musicals from the past, from Wicked to Annie. Both are ridiculously profane, though Mormon was written by the creators of South Park while Rotten! was penned by a former contemporary Christian songwriter. Go figure.
But perhaps most importantly, they both follow very traditional formulas: really rousing opening numbers. Tap dance breaks with sequins and razzle-dazzle. A song in which the costumes totally jump the shark. A heartfelt buddy comedy. A budding romance. Great comic timing. People will keep coming to Book of Mormon because it gives audiences what they want, plus explains why those guys in black ties and white shirts keep knocking on your door. I mean, ring doorbells, as the ensemble members do in the memorable opening number.
If I had to put money on an actor in the current touring cast whose career is nearing a conversion, I’d go with Candace Quarrels, who stars as the Ugandan ingénue. She’s just a sophomore at Belmont University, but has a sweet voice and naïve sincerity you never doubt. David Larsen, however, plays Elder Price with a tongue-in-cheek grin that becomes slightly grating, while Cody Jamison Strand, as Cunningham, is a charming physical comedian. The energetic ensemble playing the African villagers arguably outshines this particular bunch of clean-cut chorus boys playing the Mormon missionaries.
Production values are still reasonably strong, although lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, a University of Maryland professor who lives in the area, should probably check in to see why some of his cues appear to be off. The fake stained glass rimming the stage continues to blink purple and blue while a statue of the angel Moroni keeps blowing his trumpet at the proscenium’s apex.
The story of Moroni is mockingly recounted in the musical, as is much of Mormon history, with members of the ensemble dressed like museum diorama mannequins. Elder Cunningham embellishes the good book in his attempts to save the natives. “Those Mormon stories are really fucking weird,” remarks an elder in the Ugandan tribe. He’s right. But as long as good theater is about good storytelling, Book of Mormon will keep selling out.
2700 F St. NW. $25–$250. kennedy-center.org