Hello! Believe the hype! The Chicago production of the Tony-award winning musical "The Book of Mormon" is guaranteed to both laugh and offend you in equal parts.
You would expect nothing less from a musical that comes to us from Trey Stone and Matt Parker (the creative minds behind the occassionally raunchy "South Park") and composer Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q"). Nothing is sacred in the fast-paced show. Certainly not religion, nor Broadway musical convention.
Part of its success surely lies in the fact that it is very much a traditional Broadway musical (albeit occassionally turned on its head). The plot is the usually fish-out-of-water fare. Elder Price (Nic Rouleau, direct from the Broadway production) has followed the tenants of the Church of Latter Day Saints to the tee in the hopes when the time came to do his manditory two-year missionary work he would be rewarded by the Heavenly Father with his first choice: a magical eden called Orlando.
God, it would seem, has other plans. Elder Price not only finds himself paired with the outcast of his missionary class, the geeky Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt), but his missionary assignment is Uganda (a violent place as far removed from the Africa of "The Lion King").
After having their luggage stolen by warlords immediately upon their arrival, the pair meet up with the rest of the missionaries including the closeted Elder McKinley (Pierce Cassedy, who manages to briefly steal the show with the kick-line and jazz-hands fueled number "Turn It Off").
The missionaries have been unable to convert a single soul. The Morman faith initially appears to offer very little to assage the realities of harsh life in Uganda (rampant AIDS, poverty and violence). Elder Cunningham might just have a way in, courtesy of the shy and naive Nabulungi who is looking for something --anything-- to beleive in (the big-voiced "American Idol" runner-up Syesha Mercado, who gives the show its much needed heart and soul).
Simply put, the show works because while making fun of the conventions of both organized religion and Broadway musicals, Stone, Parker and Lopez celebrate the blind faith the devout put into them.
The Chicago cast's biggest asset is Platt. Whereas Rouleau, while charming and funny, is coming to the role direct from Broadway and doesn't stray too far out of the lines set by Andrew Rannells (who originated the role on Broadway), Platt appears to have been given some room to create his own version of Elder Cunningham. His Cunningham bears little resemblance to the Cunningham created on Broadway by Josh Gad. He's less the loveable slob and more the social outcast and Platt dives into the comedic aspects of the role with much abandoned. You can't help but root for him.
Granted the differences will only be noticed by those of us who have seen both the original Broadway production and the current Chicago cast (and I count myself in that camp). It's worth pointing out when directors and producers allow actors to find new interpretations of characters, rather than merely re-create roles in cookie-cutter fashion. It keeps the work alive and fresh, whether this is your first time or fourth. The Chicago production of "The Book of Mormon" is one to catch now and not some "latter" day.
"The Book of Mormon" currently runs through June 2, 2013 at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe. Tickets, $45-$115. Call (800) 775-1200. www.broadwayinchicago.com.