Review: The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon                                                                                        Photo by Joan Marcus

By Larry Laneer
April 26, 2018

A touring production of the critically acclaimed, lavishly awarded, and wildly popular musical The Book of Mormon must contend with the show’s gargantuan reputation. How could the show possibly meet expectations? With a second touring production now playing in Oklahoma City, how could the show ever hold up to repeat viewing? Theatergoers, it holds up and seems as fresh as ever.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway series, the production is the touring version of the Broadway production, with the same creative team and directors. And the show features an outstanding cast.

Trey Parker (who co-directs the show), Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone together are credited with the book, music, and lyrics. Lopez composed the music for Avenue Q, and Parker and Stone created the animated comedy South Park. Thus, you get an appealing score in a variety of musical styles and humor that has few limits when it comes to raunchiness.

Despite the subject matter and content, the show bears all the conventions of a mid-twentieth-century book musical. It’s about two young Mormons who just graduated from missionary training and are sent on their two-year proselytizing tour with their “mission companion.” But instead of being sent to someplace exotic like Norway or Orlando, they draw an assignment to a rural village in Uganda. Can you say “culture clash”?

You’ve seen pairs of Mormon missionaries roaming the streets. They’ve probably rung your doorbell. If you think they couldn’t look any more ridiculous than they already do in their short-sleeved white shirts and neckties with name badges that identify 19-year-olds as “Elder” somebody, you’d be wrong. Casey Nicholaw’s choreography (he also co-directs with Parker) is a comedic feature of the show unto itself. It looks like a parody of traditional musical theater choreography. He even includes a tap number. Plus, the cast does the dances with skillful exuberance.

Kevin Clay and the hyperkinetic Conner Peirson play the missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. Both are fine actors, singers, and dancers. Kayla Pecchioni is the sweet Ugandan, Nabulungi. The entire cast delivers strong performances.

The show’s strength lies in its skewering aspects of modern life, such as the preposterousness of organized religions. Granted, the Mormons are easy targets. The first act’s jaunty “Turn It Off” shows how people (and this doesn’t apply only to Mormons) deal with diseases, catastrophes, sexuality, or just the vicissitudes of life by consciously ignoring them. But the highlight is the second act’s “Joseph Smith American Moses,” where the Ugandans present (their version) of the Mormon story. The number employs ancient theatrical techniques, such as outrageous props, in unexpected ways. I won’t describe it more than that.

The production is top notch. The scenic design includes impressive wings and three-dimensional set pieces, which flow smoothly in numerous scene changes ranging from Salt Lake City to Africa, to, well, Hell. An ecclesiastical-like proscenium with an oscillating golden statue of Moroni at the top frames the stage. While heavily synthesized, the pit band sounds to me about the same as the original orchestration, which was for a 9-piece combo, including horns and strings.

The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway in 2011 (where it’s still playing). It first played here around New Year’s 2015. I wasn’t sure if the show would have legs after seeing it then, but the current production erases all doubt. It’s a classic. One of those shows you’ll want to see about every 10 years or so.

The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone (book, music, and lyrics)
OKC Broadway

Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 26, 8:00 p.m. Friday, April 27
2:00 p.m and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 28
1:30 p.m and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, April 29
201 N. Walker Ave.

Review: The Little Mermaid

Jared Blount, Emily Paige Cleek, and Emily Pace in The Little Mermaid          Photo by Joshua McGowen

By Larry Laneer
April ­­­17, 2018

Musical theater swings between substance and spectacle. You rarely see both in one show. With neither substance nor spectacle, Pollard Theatre Company’s production of The Little Mermaid risks sailing right into the rocks.

The show is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story and the 1989 Disney animated film. Disney Theatrical Productions staged the original musical, and the touring version played here last fall. The sole purpose for this musical’s existence is to present a great spectacle, including mermaids and other sea creatures “swimming” by means of flying apparatus above the stage and other effects.

The pop score (Alan Menken, music; Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, lyrics) has its charms, and the book (Doug Wright) teems with puns that will delight any fifth grader.

Pollard has “reimagined” the show for its compact theater and perhaps more limited budget than what was available to Disney Theatrical. Pollard has had great success reimagining big, glitzy musicals for a chamber-like staging, last season’s The Producers, for instance.

The problem is Little Mermaid isn’t a good show for a Pollard reimagining. A Disneyfied fairy tale about a mermaid who longs to trade her fins for legs and marry the handsome prince doesn’t offer as much substance as even a light comedy like The Producers.

The co-directors W. Jerome Stevenson and Timothy Stewart must have thought seasoned theatergoers would be skeptical about the company presenting Little Mermaid. They first make their case for the production in a program note. Then, before the show starts, the cast in street clothes enters through the house trying to psych up the audience. They especially target children, who were plentiful at the reviewed performance. “Are you here to see the Little Mermaid,” an ensemble member exclaimed superfluously to some little girls. “Yaaaaaaay!” They encourage us to cheer the hero and boo the villain. Or villainess, in this case.

Next, gathering on stage, the cast demonstrates the magic of theater. How, for example, two actors stretching a rope into a vertical rectangle can create a “door,” which someone pantomimes opening and walking through and then forgetting to “open” when he exits, fake bumping his noggin. “Make-believe is what actors and audiences do,” the actor playing the Little Mermaid says encouragingly. Well, you can’t argue with that.

Then, the music starts, and off we go to Poseidon’s realm. But what’s Pollard to do next? It’s hard to tell if they are staging a satirical stab at glitzy musicals or a trying to stage a glitzy show on a budget. Either way, the staging doesn’t demand much make-believe on the audience’s part. Those pre-curtain street clothes are a prelude the costumes by Michael James. Most of the costumes look like they came from a retail costume store (those awful fake boots Prince Eric wears over black shoes) or off the rack at a dollar store.

The same can be said about the props, and this show employs many. In the delightful to the point of being foolproof “Under the Sea,” the props depicting sea life look like what might be bought or homemade for a PTA talent show.

Stevenson also did the scenic design, and it’s a step up from the costumes and props. Fully realized, solid-looking backdrops depict lairs of King Triton and the evil squid, Ursula. Shimmering blue cloths stretched across the stage and kept in constant motion serve as the ocean.

The show features some engaging performances in supporting roles. It’s a treat to see Doug Ford as Scuttle the seagull. Cory Fields makes a menacing Ursula. Kaleb Bruza has a comical, if brief, scene as Chef Louis in “Les Poissons.” As Sebastian the crab, Brandon Stalling benefits from having the best songs.

The leads are uneven. Emily Paige Cleek is appealing as Ariel, the lovesick mermaid. The handsome Griffin Maxwell (new to me) is fine as Prince Eric as long as he’s singing.

Theatergoers appreciate Pollard’s reimagining shows and giving us a fresh look at familiar or rarely seen work. In this case, one wishes they were reimagining a better show. This Little Mermaid founders at sea.

The Little Mermaid by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater (lyrics), and Doug Wright (book)
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through May 5
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie

Review: Fun Home

Taylor Yancey, Lyn Cramer, and Reese Freund in Fun Home             Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
April ­­­12, 2018

Well, theatergoers, it’s my pleasant duty to report that Lyric Theatre is putting on a genuine hit at the Plaza Theatre. This should come as no surprise, as Fun Home has been one of the most lauded and awarded musicals since it was first staged in 2013. This is just the type of edgy, provocative work Lyric should be doing at its 16th Street home.

The show is based on the graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, “a lesbian cartoonist,” as she self-identifies early in the musical. With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, the show closely follows Bechdel’s memoir. The Bechdels live in a small Pennsylvania town where Alison’s father, Bruce, is a high school English teacher and funeral director at the Bechdel Funeral Home (the “fun home”). It’s not giving away anything to reveal that Bruce is gay (and deeply closeted), because Alison does so early in the show. The Bechdels are a classic dysfunctional American family.

That’s not to say they lack style and wit. They revel in music and good books. The mother plays classical piano. Bruce and Alison beat out a fine “Body and Soul” on the family grand piano to which they’ve written their own literary lyrics. But trouble brews beneath the intellectual and artistic façade.

This production deserves praise all around, so let’s start with the scenic design by Dawn Drake and lighting by Art Whaley. In a brilliant move, Lyric got Bechdel’s permission to use images from the book in the set design. Drake and Whaley adopted Bechdel’s bold, honest style for the entire set. And her color palette, which explains why glasses of sherry and wine look like they’re filled with Windex.

The story goes all over the place and back and forth in time. Three different actors play Alison at various ages. Michael Baron’s efficient staging keeps the show moving at a quick pace for two hours without intermission.

It’s almost unfair to single out particular performances, because the entire cast excels. But you will have your favorite moments. Mine begin with Taylor Yancey as Medium Alison. Her scenes with her first girlfriend in this coming-out story are some of the most intense ever seen on the Plaza stage. We look forward to seeing a lot more of Yancey.

Mateja Govich gives an unparalleled dramatic performance as Bruce. When Bruce begins to change late in the show, you can even see it in Govich’s face. Reese Freund carries a big load as Small Alison and shows extraordinary acting and singing chops for a young artist. As Alison’s mother, Mandy Jiran has her big moment in “Days and Days” late in the show in what may be her top performance after many years with Lyric. She also plays some fine piano.

Taylor Blackman in various roles and Coulter Hershey and Connor Willis as Alison’s younger, rambunctious brothers give strong performances. The Bechdel children make a completely inappropriate, but fun as hell, jingle for the funeral home in “Come to the Fun Home” early in the show.

Baron has made some interesting casting decisions. He cast Lyn Cramer as Alison. Cramer is one of our most highly regarded musical theater professionals as an actor, singer, director, and choreographer. The character Alison is 43 years old. Baron changed the dialog to make her 53, but Cramer is a bit older than that. Thus, Cramer is older than Govich and Jiran, who play her parents. This isn’t a flaw in the production. It means the show comes off as a memory play. Nothing’s wrong with that. Tennessee Williams did pretty well with his memory play, The Glass Menagerie. And it’s nice to see Cramer in the role.

Also, Baron cast Sandra Mae Frank, who happens to be deaf, as Alison’s first girlfriend, Joan. Frank was in Lyric’s 2016 American Sign Language production of Fiddler on the Roof. The show’s creators didn’t make the character deaf, but it doesn’t matter. As Frank signs, Joan’s dialog appears in projections in a Bechdel-like font. And Frank gives a feisty performance.

The show takes place in the 1970s, reflected with scary accuracy by Jeffrey Meeks’s costumes. Bruce would never wear a white belt with white shoes, but he’s not above plaid polyester trousers with a sport coat. Matthew Sipress’s choreography for “Come to the Fun Home” oozes with period accuracy.

You aren’t likely to walk out of the theater humming any of Tesori’s tunes, but her austere score fits well with this production and even has a few Coplandesque licks. It’s well played by a seven-piece onstage band that includes strings and woodwinds.

This show will not put a spring in your step; it’s not designed to do that. For some, it will be “there but for the grace of God go I.” But the show is that delightful convergence of worthy material and a quality production. It’s a theatergoer’s dream.

Fun Home by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m Saturdays,
2:00 p.m. Sundays, through April 29
Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.
Tickets start at $45