Monday, May 23, 2011

Book of Mormon and Sister Act: A Second Glance

With friends in town wanting to see the two best musicals of the season, I got a chance to revisit Book of Mormon and Sister Act. I also got a chance to see both from a different vantage point--the last row of the theater. (I had seen Sister Act from the first row center with rush tickets and BOM from fourth row right back when they offered discounts.) After a couple of attempts at the Mormon lottery, my friends finally won, so I not only got to watch the show from the back of the theater, I also got to watch the back of my friends' heads.

My first viewing of Book of Mormon was thrilling, a complete religious experience--I was enriched, enlivened, shared a connection with souls searching for a common gladness. But the show was an avalanche of anticipation, each moment building on the next, no time to luxuriate because something new and surprising and hiliarious was about happen. It would have been like watching one domino as the rest fell. I saw the show before it opened so I didn't write about it at the time. Thereafter, when I tried, all I could muster was a vomit of superlatives because the moments had blurred into one collective memory. A wonderful blur, but I needed to see it again to sort it out, reinspect each golden plate.

On second viewing, the show not only held up to my internalized hype, not only hit the ball as far out of the park, it was exponentially more entertaining overall. Because I knew what lay ahead, I wasn't suffocated by my own held breath. I simply savored each moment, wallowed hog hungry in its brilliance, laughed until I hurt, and then laughed myself out of pain. Despite whatever controversy the content might spark--and it certainly doesn't seem to have sparked much--and in spite of its contemporary themes, the creative team (Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez) have created a very traditional musical, and a finely crafted one at that. The songs are beautifully and thought-provokingly constructed: memorable, singable, both telling a story and supporting the bigger story. Minus the acid on the tongue-in-cheek, the musical could stand alongside the standards of the 50s and 60s.

The actors are universally excellent and perfectly cast. I wouldn't want to be the deciding vote for the Tony Awards, choosing between Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad (a point, not a prediction). They are so different but equally effective. Rannells is a more complete performer, but Gad's performance is no less affecting because he doesn't tap dance. I suspect Mr. Gad is a latent schtick milker, but he was disciplined at my viewing. Nikki M. James has the unenviable task of sustaining innocence and keeping it interesting. There is no hint of caricature or stupidity. She is all heart, hope, and honesty.

That the show gets a bit preachy for a moment as it makes its point about the absurdity of faith in all its forms is forgivable. Most South Park episodes that I have seen dissolve into a similar, momentary sentiplicity right before they yank the rug out from under you just for emphasis. You are the pratfall, collapsing into laughter one last time.

Enough of the Mormons, now for the Catholics. Sister Act was a solid, fun show the first time around. It, too, was better on second chance. The last row of the Broadway did me no favors, nor did the two idiots texting toward the end of Act 1. The sound was better in the balcony. All of the men were vastly improved, especially Chester Gregory who was flat out good (whereas before he was just flat.) Victoria Clark, who seemed to be doing the best she could with some lousy melodies the first time, had perhaps been having a bad night. During Friday night's performance, she sang beautifully. Her songs were still the weakest in the show; but the numbers, taken as a whole, were poignant and textured and great counter-point to the energy and intensity of the rest of the show. Patina Miller was a joyous treat both times, but she is settling into the role and is now owning the full stage, hell, the entire house, instead of just the lit portion beneath her feet. She was infectious to the back row. She is giving the best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical this season, bar none (a fact, not a prediction.)

I suspect I will see Sister Act again. It is well-suited for out-of-town guests with a low tolerance for offense. I will, without a doubt, see Book of Mormon again and again. I am not a Catholic or a Mormon, but I am a fully-converted fan of both shows.

1 comment:

Robert Muller said...
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