Culture Tricksters: 'Book of Mormon' and 'Rocky Horror'

Mark Evans, Derrick Williams - The Book of  Mormon
Joan Marcus
Mark Evans, Derrick Williams - The Book of Mormon

What? The cravin', crazed Frank N. Furter and the gleeful me-boy Mormon Elder Price in the same sentence?

What again? "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" and "Sweet Transvestite," being sung in the same city, if not exactly the same time (that would require doing a time warp)?

What again, and then, again? "The Book of Mormon" and "The Rocky Horror Show" have a lot in common? Actually, they do. They're kind of nice. Seriously?

Yeah, sure. The Broadway and road company juggernaut, "The Book of Mormon," now for an extended stay at the Kennedy Center's Opera House and "The Rocky Horror Show, "now in a brassy, up-close and sometimes intimate mounting at the Studio Theatre have a lot in common.

It's not just that both musicals --"Rocky" with a blasting, almost stadium-rock sound (hard rocker Meatloaf was in the movie) and "Mormon" with its high-energy current Broadway pop score --brazenly try to shock and sock your eyes out with blasphemous, bloody, gory, nightmarish sexual references, language or content. It's that, at their heart, both shows are all-in-fun fun stuff and engaging in their efforts to please you like a puppy does.

The more "The Book of Mormon" reveals its "South Park" genetic code of near-obscene -- okay, obscene -- references meant to shock your grandma and yourself, and the more indecent the garter belts, Frederick of Hollywood outfits and pan- and transsexual proceedings become in "The Rocky Horror Show" -- "Damn it, Janet!" -- the more comfortable the audience gets.

In "The Book of Mormon," that infectious little ditty the Ugandan villagers sing to show that they're mad at the deity is like a slap in the face, sort of, like bad aftershave, but wipe that smile off your face once you close your mouth. That heavily made-up sweet guy in the hoops may not be for you in the aisle, but perhaps you'll smile back at the bouncy girl in the mop wig in "Rocky Horror."

Underneath and out front in both shows, there's a quality that forgives everything. There's a genuine enthusiasm that seems almost innocent. In the case of the "The Book of Mormon," it just sort of makes you surrender. "The Rocky Horror Show" is not so innocent in its celebration of all things sex and sexy, but it also has an affectionate undertone. "The Book of Mormon," in no small part because of its cast and various players, celebrates -- when all is said and done -- Broadway musicals. If Brother Price came out singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," it would be no surprise.

Bad things may be happening to good people, but the plucky spirit of the young elders stranded in Uganda is almost overpowering.

For sure, "The Book of Mormon" is irreverent about the real "Book of Mormon." You can bet Ann Romney wouldn't like it. I would not vouch for Mitt Romney, Harry Reid, Bill Marriott or Bryce Harper. The creators -- Trey Parker and Matt Stone of "South Park" fame along with Robert Lopez, of "Avenue Q" fame -- have toned down their act only a little.

With Elder Price the uber popular and narcissistic guy teamed up with the chubby foul-up Elder Cunningham to convert a group of sick, troubled and poor Uganda villagers, there's plenty of room for inappropriate satire. But there's also room for tunes: "You and Me, Mostly Me," "Turn it Off," and the heroine Nabalungi, singing about "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," "I Believe" and the hot, sexy "Babtize Me."

Chris Evans, as the me-me Elder Price, and Christopher John O'Neill pair up nicely as an odd-couple team, while Samantha Marie Ware is a powerful and attractive presence with a major Broadway voice.

It's the endearing energy that grabs you. You don't need to be a fan of "South Park" humor to figure out why this show is as big as it is. It delivers whole-heartedly -- and with a whole heart -- an evening of great entertainment.

So does director Keith Alan Baker, the star of the Studio's 2nd Stage series. Although with "Rocky Horror," you get great entertainment as more of a nearly full contact sport. Here, the sweet stuff underneath is the undying affection displayed for old B-style horror movies, from "Frankenstein," "Godzilla" and "Them" to "Bride of Frankenstein" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." It's all done in exuberant style, totally shameless in delivery, but also with full-throat, rock-and-roll voice. That's the other thing that's being celebrated here: the blasts of power from the past of rock and roll.

The look is a little different from both the movie and other productions: it's a little more grungy, a little more filled with running makeup and even a lot of feverish dangerous looks. But hats off -- or anything else -- to Mitchell Jarvis, a foot-stomping, gleaming-in-the-dark Frank N. Furter, as he seduces the two naifs who visit the castle, Janet and Brad. Kudos to Sarah Marshall as a narrator and a wheelchair-bound secret professor-agent. Matthew G. Myers as the ill-fated Eddie, a rock and roller to the end. And kudos to us and to you, should you venture into the castle.

"The Book of Mormon" is at the Kennedy Center's Opera House through Aug. 18. "The Rocky Horror Show" is at the Studio Theatre on 14th Street, NW.

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Sat, 26 Jul 2014 03:08:50 -0400

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