The Palace Theater

The Book of Mormon is Back

Review of The Book of Mormon, The Palace Theater, Waterbury

Seeing The Book of Mormon, the irreverent and gleefully foul-mouthed Tony-winning musical by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone in a touring production now at the Palace Theater in Waterbury through April 14, is like going to a party—either a party where you know everyone and have fun, or a party where you don’t, and don’t.

Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s much-praised The Book of Mormon, at the Palace Theater in Waterbury through April 14

Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s much-praised The Book of Mormon, at the Palace Theater in Waterbury through April 14

If you do have fun, it’s as at the expense of goofy Mormons and their made-in-the-U.S.A. myth; cartoonish Ugandans, suffering from poverty, AIDS, and a warlord who wants to circumcise all women; a range of references to Disney and Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings; a big seduction moment that features a baptism; a big production number set in a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” that includes simulated sex with heinous inmates like Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer; and a lengthy fantasia of a foundation myth in which fucking a frog—as a cure for AIDS—is preferable to fucking a baby. The laughs depend on how much of a kick you get from things like the surprise of hearing a glowing Jesus, complete with blonde hair, call the main protagonist “a dick,” or watching a village of Lion King-like Africans sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (translated as “Fuck You, God”) instead of “Hakuna Matata,” or seeing the same villagers sport incredibly long black phalloi.

Fans of the show—which has been around since 2011 and has passed through Connecticut before—will find the show given an appropriately discordant setting at the Palace. Looking like a temple of theater, the venue features the kinds of high-tone trappings that help this brash brat of a musical score its points. Those points, while allegedly aimed to outrage the sensitivities of the venerable theater-goer, actually play into all the old familiar territory—the schlemihl proves himself, the bad guys are routed, and the powers that be see that all is not lost. It’s not so much a spoof of Broadway musicals as simply the kind of musical most suitable to the 21st century’s loss of all proprieties.

While some of the bigger numbers can feel a bit perfunctory, there are some musical standouts here, including the aforementioned “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” as well as “Turn It Off,” the Mormon’s paean to keeping unwanted feelings at bay, and the numbers featuring Kayla Pecchioni as Nabulungi, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” and “Baptize Me.” The latter also features Jordan Matthew Brown, as Elder Cunningham, the role played originally by Josh Gad, and Brown does well at being goofishly, nerdishly endearing. He becomes the hero due to his talent for “Making Things Up Again,” despite the efforts by his much better-prepared partner—Elder Price (Luke Monday, standing in for Liam Tobin)—to make it all about himself in “You and Me (But Mostly Me).”

The stage is big and often filled with a lot of actors, and the backdrops, costume and props help to keep the show busy. The religious segments—which might put some in mind of the diorama display in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—are given the kind of gloss Hollywood tends to give to biblical epics, and the stories of Mormon (Tyler Leahy), Joseph Smith (Ron Bohmer), and the angel Moroni (Andy Huntington Jones) might be diverting enough even without the pop epics Elder Cunningham brings into play. Andy Huntington Jones does good work as Elder McKinley, as does Jacques C. Smith as Mafala and Corey Jones as the General.

To not have fun is to find this all more sophomoric than Parker and Stone’s famed adult cartoon South Park. The latter aims to offend and does so with absurdist brio, but what makes it work—when it does—is that the main characters are children, and the mishmash they make of the adult world, together with their joy in whatever is obscene or dirty, pays off. WithThe Book of Mormon, it helps to maintain the attitude toward religion, sex, bodily functions, and dirty words you might’ve had when you were about eight. In any case, this Broadway smash from the era of adult-sounding President Obama strikes the ear a bit differently in the era of trash-talking President Trump.

 

The Book of Mormon
Book, Music and Lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangements by Stephen Oremus

Scenic Design: Scott Pask; Costume Design: Ann Roth; Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Orchestrations: Larry Hochman & Stephen Oremus

Cast: Jaron Barney, Ron Bohmer, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd, Jordan Matthew Brown, Andy Huntington Jones, Corey Jones, Tyler Leahy, Will Lee-Williams, Luke Monday, Monica L. Patton, Kayla Pecchioni, Jacques C. Smith, Teddy Trice

Ensemble: Jaron Barney, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd, Zach Erhardt, Kenny Francoeur, Jeremy Gaston, Eric Geil, Patrick Graver, Kristen Jeter, Tyler Leahy, Will Lee-Williams, Josh Marin, Stoney B. Mootoo, Monica L. Patton, J Nycole Ralph, Connor Russell, Teddy Trice

The Palace Theater
Waterbury, CT
April 9-14, 2019

That's Shoe Biz!

Review of Kinky Boots, The Palace Theater, Waterbury

Harvey Fierstein’s and Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots is a crowd-pleasing tale of how difference saves the day. Or, rather, how difference-driven niche markets do. In any case, its message is progressive and its songs full of the moxie for which Lauper is well-known. The best thing about the show, though, are the drag queens—or “angels”—led by Lola, played with a winning understatement by J. Harrison Ghee who seems born to be charismatic and show-stopping.

Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and the Angels

Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and the Angels

The story concerns Charlie (Adam Kaplan), the heir to his father’s show factory in Northampton, England, who has plans to live the life of a Yuppie in London with his svelte and fashion-shoe-struck fiancée Nicola (Charissa Hoagland). But, like a latter-day George Bailey, Charlie can’t give up on the little folks at home. If he doesn’t step in and find a workable solution to get the ailing factory—which has been eating its unsold inventory—solvent, then it’s the dole for all the workers so loyal to his late Da. A chance encounter in the street—where Charlie tries to come to the aid of Lola, a drag-damsel in distress otherwise known as Simon—leads to the idea to save the day by developing the glitzy thigh-high boots beloved of queens, thus inaugurating Lola’s career as a designer of kinky boots.

A strong suit in this tale of working lads and lasses putting their collective noses to the grindstone, for higher than high heels able to support a cross-dressing male, is how well-oiled the machinery is. The big production numbers have many moving bodies and moving parts—including conveyor belts on “Everybody Say Yeah”—and it all works wonderfully well on the Palace Theater’s old school stage. Many a Broadway house looks tawdry compared to the Palace’s well-kept sumptuousness, and Kinky Boots fills it with Broadway-style pizzazz. The orchestra is tight, and many songs have a familiar Eighties feel that really starts to work after a while.

The action bits—such as the boxing bout between Simon and Don (Aaron Walpole), the manly bloke distressed about working for a cross-dresser—are well-staged and add some drama to a second act that otherwise doesn’t have much to do, except create some faux suspense over whether or not the boots will be ready for Milan. It’s Act One that really cooks, with standouts like the aforementioned “Everybody Say Yeah”—its big finish—“Sex is in the Heel,” a manifesto for the libidinal charge of accessories, “Not My Father’s Son,” a touching duet between Simon and Charlie, and “The History of Wrong Guys,” a snappy comic relief tune in which Lauren (Tiffany Engen), a factory worker with a crush on Charlie, puts out there a love-struck feminine view as only Lauper could, and which Engen puts across with show-stealing brio.

As the lead male dressed as a male, Kaplan’s Charlie is a little too timid to be interesting and a bit too earnest to be amusing. He’s got looks and a voice, but could open a bit more in his movement, particularly on his big Act 2 number “Soul of a Man.” As his intended, Nicola, Hoagland looks great in a thankless role that feels a tad unfair, as if it’s fine for the “angels” to be all about couture but we should see Nicola as shallow for harboring similar tastes. Meanwhile, no one seems to wonder why men and women alike, at the factory, are content with a rather unisex look of dungarees and pull-overs. Glamor, it seems, is for those who pursue it as an identity, though, in the end, everyone gets to sport a pair of kinky boots.

As a progressive tale about having the courage to be yourself in a hostile world, Kinky Boots still rings true and is a welcome reach-out to soften the heart of the glowering Dons of the world. Though it could also be said that the threat of violence or ostracization is rather anodyne here, and, by the same token, the kinkiness is rather mild. A plot in which Charlie ends by giving Lola/Simon a go would make for a kinkier show and a more surprising case of “the girl” getting the guy.

In any case, if—as the saying goes—you can’t judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, that goes double for taking a few steps in their kinky boots. Kinky Boots is at its best bringing home the camaraderie of people stirred by a common purpose, so that the design, production and marketing of Lola’s creations feel as rewarding as the creation of Lola herself, or of a show about her. In each case, it’s worth our time to see how it’s done and why that should matter to our general self-esteem.

 

Kinky Boots
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and Lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Based on the Miramax motion picture written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
Music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus

Starring: J. Harrison Ghee, Adam Kaplan, Tiffany Engen, with Aaron Walpole, Charissa Hoagland, Jim J. Bullock

Scenic Design: David Rockwell; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner: Sound Design: John Shivers; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Make-Up Design: Randy Houston Mercer; Associate Choreographer: Rusty Mowery; Associate Director: D. B. Bonds; Music Director: Roberto Sinha; Music Conductor: Michael Keller

The Angels: Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, Ian Gallagher Fitzgerald, JP Qualters, Xavier Reyes, Sam Rohloff

Cast: Meryn Beckett, E. Clayton Cornelious, Tami Dahbura, Alfred Dalpino, Madge Dietrich, Alex Dreschke, Annie Edgerton, Jhazz Fleming, Collin Jeffery, David Jennings, Ellen Marlow, Ciarán McCarthy, Ashley Moniz, Sebastian Maynard-Palmer, Casi Riegle, Andrew Scanlon, Tom Souhrada, Harrison Wright, Sam Zeller

The Palace Theater, Waterbury
December 6-11, 2016