“The Book of Mormon” in Chicago: Successful mission of hilarity, genuine message

“The Book of Mormon,” winner of nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, had quite the reputation proceeding it as it came to Chicago. With the Broadway production sold out months in advance, it’s one hot ticket. Rest assured, the Chicago company matches the spirit of the Broadway production bringing this hilarious experience to the Midwest.

At a basic level, what sets “The Book of Mormon” apart from other shows is the material. In a dynamic team of “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker along with “Avenue Q” composer Bobby Lopez, the musical is a unique fusion of humor, religion, real-world issues and driving music. It has a classic musical theatre structure interlaced with raunchy humor, keeping it a show that extends beyond the interest of typical theatregoers. 

This break-through musical follows the story of two mismatched Mormon boys- Elder Price who has prayed to be sent to Orlando, and Elder Cunningham who has a wild imagination. However, the boys are sent off to carry out their mission in volatile Uganda. In a clash of two different worlds, the missionaries struggle to connect with the Africans and baptize anyone into the church.

It’s no easy feat to make light of serious issues like AIDS, genital mutilation and religion, but the “South Park” creators know how to carefully construct the perfect mood by continually crossing the line and pulling it back. That in mind, with expletives flying left and right, this is the show to leave your little sibling at home. However, the humor is just one layer as the show constantly pulls the audience in different directions throughout: from the crude humor, to poignant plot moments and powerful songs.

Most notably, the Chicago cast not only delivers a strong performance, but also appropriately looks the part of young teens. The three leads create a strong, dynamic trio, fresh from the original cast.

Nineteen-year-old Ben Platt (from the film “Pitch Perfect”) as Elder Cunningham steals the show. Breaking the mold of previous actors to play the role, Platt’s slender build works perfectly. His take on the awkward, misunderstood Cunningham is genuine and endearing as he channels a sense of nervous energy throughout. In combination, Platt’s powerful voice and comedic timing sets him apart (especially in the Act One finale “Man Up”) as a true standout.

Straight from the Broadway cast, Nic Rouleau captures the charm and ambition of Elder Price. Taking over the role from original Broadway cast member Andrew Rannells, the move to Chicago allows Rouleau to explore and make the role his own. With a demanding score, Rouleau’s experience in the role shows through his skillful vocal placement and stamina.

This dynamic duo, along with Syesha Mercado as Nabulungi, sparks great chemistry throughout. Known for her strong vocals from “American Idol”and the National Tour of “Dreamgirls,” Mercado excels with the music as she takes subtle liberties beyond the written score. Together, Platt and Mercado create a priceless rendition of “Baptize Me,” and they couldn’t be cuter together. Being a last minute replacement with two weeks before previews began, Mercado will certainly grow more comfortable in the role with time.

The cast also features local Chicago actor and Steppenwolf ensemble member James Vincent Meredith as Mafala Hatimbi and Pierce Cassedy as the flamboyant Elder McKinley. In a true group production, the ensemble builds a solid foundation with numerous dance breaks and strong harmonies. Despite some poor seating at the Bank of America Theatre, the production translates perfectly to Chicago with an identical set designed by Scott Pask. 

Although depicted in a satirical way, the show does contain some validity. Amidst all the humor are accurate facts and realities of the Mormon religion embedded in the book and lyrics. What’s best is that the show progresses to be about more than just Mormonism and religion, ultimately creating something for everyone. 

Much like on Broadway, the Chicago production is sold-out until March 3, but tickets are currently on sale through June 2. Sold-out performances are a good sign for an open-ended run as rumors have suggested for the Chicago cast.

Broadway in Chicago suggests patrons to buy their tickets early, consider premium seating and to try weekday performances- especially Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Ideal for a poor college student, they offer a day-of lottery for $25 tickets to each performance. You can enter your name up until two hours before the show when they pull names in the theatre’s lobby.

“The Book of Mormon” runs through June 2 at the Bank of America Theatre. Tickets range from $45-$115.

Also, please note that this review is of the first preview performance in Chicago Dec. 11, 2012.