Broadway Favorites in England: The Book of Mormon and Once
By Steven Suskin
Broadway's Book of Mormon and Once — Best Musical winners from the 2011 and 2012 seasons, respectively — are both ensconced in the West End. How do the productions compare with the originals? How do they differ? How is an American abroad likely to react? We took the opportunity to check in on both.
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.
The show is a major hit, with my London contacts telling me that it is, by far, the hottest ticket in many years. The premium tickets, though, are considerably less expensive than in New York. This is not to say that people who can't score Broadway seats should consider making the journey to London. I can assure you, though, that the production at the Prince of Wales is every bit as sharp, precise and dynamic as the one at the Eugene O'Neill.
My relationship with Once is not quite so familial, but I was an early supporter of the show. After seeing a press preview of the initial production at New York Theater Workshop, I emailed a dozen friends and suggested that they order tickets quickly, before the reviews came out. For various reasons, I managed to see the original cast five times. (Other than Mormon and Once, twice is my absolute limit. Although as a then-Tony Award nominator, I needed to see Billy Elliott three times — with diminishing returns, entertainment-wise.)
Mormon is a vibrant crowd pleaser that virtually cudgels you, in the most delirious manner, with wild humor and outrageous songs. Once is something else altogether: A mood piece that imperceptibly sneaks its way into your heart and takes you to exhilarating heights. Arriving at the Phoenix Theatre, I instantly noticed a perceptible difference. Audiences in the U.S. throng the on-stage pre-show bar, with entertainment provided by the musicians (who turn out to be the actors as well). While some hearty souls (tourists, perhaps) participated in the busking, the West End audience was far more tentative. This seems to be cultural; by half-time the audience was thoroughly loving the show, but they nevertheless avoided the stage bar at intermission (during which the "Gertrude Lawrence Bar," in the lower lobby, was packed).
The show itself — lovingly recreated by director John Tiffany, movement director Steven Hoggett and designers Bob Crowley and Natasha Katz — was very much the same. Stars Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić were reminiscent of originals Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, but with slight differences. As the rudderless songwriting Hoover-man whose woman ran away, Kazee expressed an exposed-nerve anguish when he sang "Leave," "Say It to Me Now" and "Gold"; this is not so easily replicable. Cvitešić plays the Czech heroine with a warm smile that betrays a hint of humor and lovableness, which makes the plot's impossible romance seem slightly more possible. It's a reasonable choice, and it adds to the overall effect. After five magical sessions with Kazee and Milioti, though, I don't imagine any future players are likely to supplant them for me.
That said, the show works on all cylinders. Once is built on the power of the music and the musicians, and the London show is as every bit as impressive as New York. Some of the roles are cast and played identically, with others — like the cello-playing bank manager from Cork — quite differently but equally effective. The one element I missed, strange as it may sound, was Billy's beard. (Billy is the intense music-store owner). It's not that the bald-and-beardless London actor doesn't play his part well; it's just that after repeat viewings, that beard is as much a part of the show for me as the wash of Dublin city lights and the hero's dark-wood guitar with the light patch across the middle.
On Broadway, The Book of Mormon opened March 2011 while Once arrived the following March, placing them in different seasons (and allowing them to take nine and eight Tony Awards, respectively). In London, Once premiered a mere four weeks after Mormon, when the media blitz was still underway and even the most well-connected people in town were struggling to score Mormon tickets. This left Once fighting for attention and audiences, although my understanding is that the show is now doing well. The word of mouth on both musicals, as in New York, is phenomenal, and deservedly so. I emerged from the Prince of Wales and the Phoenix, on successive nights, thrilled that the London audiences were given the same high-quality experiences as at the O'Neill and the Jacobs.
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