The Book of Mormon, of course, is Broadway's biggest blockbuster in recent memory. I approached the London production with some trepidation, being overly familiar with the musical. How would I react to the same show in a different theatre with a different cast and different accents? [Disclaimer: I wrote the text for the coffee table book, "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical," in the course of which I spent time with the creators and the entire cast, so that I know all the moves and all the jokes (plus many that were cut along the way)].
The performance I attended last Thursday in London, to my surprise, was met with precisely the same over-the-moon reaction seen in New York. The audience took about ninety seconds to get in gear — they weren't quite sure whether to laugh or not at the opening tableaux of two Mormon prophets talking to Jesus, with electric lights — but as soon as the smiling Elder Price rang that imaginary doorbell and sang "Hello," it was clear that we were in for the full Book of Mormon experience.
The local Elders are Gavin Creel (as Price) and Jared Gertner (as Cunningham), American imports who originated the roles in the first U.S. touring company. Creel is familiar along Broadway, having received Tony nominations as Sutton Foster's love interest in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Claude in the recent Hair. (He has starred in London as well, as Bert in Mary Poppins and in the 2010 transfer of Hair.) Rather than simply replicate Andrew Rannells, who created the role on Broadway, Creel's performance is a bit more shaded; while thoroughly and enthusiastically devout, he seems to raise his eyebrows at some of the dogma earlier in the proceedings than Rannells did. Both interpretations work equally well, but the different attitude allows Creel to build a full-fledged performance of his own rather than just an excellent reproduction.
I saw Gertner play the show on Broadway prior to the tour, when he covered for original cast member Josh Gad (who was off making a television pilot). Gertner was out the night I saw the London Mormon. These things happen, but it turned out to be felicitous, because standby Daniel Buckley is a thorough delight. Gad's Cunningham was one-of-a-kind; he participated in six early readings and workshops of the show, and the authors literally developed the role around his comedic style (which was something of a 21st-century mix of Jackie Gleason and John Belushi). In fact, more than a few of Gad's off-hand ad-libs have been permanently written into the script for all future Cunninghams.
Buckley performs the role as a misfit, yes, but he is a warm and sweet misfit. His Mormon lullaby is more tender, and he also offers an earlier and deeper indication of a relationship with the native Nabulungi. On the comic side, Buckley's "Man Up" is as funny as ever I've seen, in some part due to what can only be described as a cascading stomach.
The London Mormon takes off during the first African scene, just like on Broadway. That dead donkey dragged across the stage ignites laughter that grows and grows, and "Hasa Diga Eebowai" explodes like a firecracker. After this, the show is unstoppable. For the first time in my eight viewings, I observed that a significant segment of this mostly British audience was fully reacting to "Hasa Diga Eebowai" before the lyric is translated. Either the house was packed with repeat visitors, or the Broadway cast album has a wide U.K. circulation.
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