Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Theater Reviews: The Book of Mormon, The Normal Heart, and Death Takes A Holiday

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:13

I had an awesome little excursion to New York City last weekend to see some AMAZING Broadway shows including 2011’s Tony-Award Winning (x 9!) Best Musical The Book of Mormon, the second-to-last-performance of Tony-Award Winner for Best Revival of a Play The Normal Heart, and Death Takes A Holiday the new musical from the same creative team as Titanic. All shows were superb! Below is a synopsis and critique of the shows:a370186553mormon370.jpg The first show of the weekend was The Book of Mormon–one that I was really anticipating seeing given that I am a HUGE fan of South Park and the fact it won an astonishing 9 Tony Awards, including the coveted prize for Best Musical. Needless to say, the show is highly blasphemous, poking a million little holes in the Mormon religion, exposing most of it as a ridiculous and laughable fraud. Ironically, many of the comedic elements of the show which garnered large audience reactions came from the musical numbers that are laced with accurate descriptions of what Mormons actually believe. Of course, this is all punctuated by some very funny slapstick comedy and tremendously strong performances. Elders Cunningham (Josh Gad) and Price (Andrew Rannels) are our lead characters that are shipped off to Uganda to proselytize Mormonism to Africans who are fighting the realities of genocide, AIDS, famine, and all of the other problems condign to that region and have very little time or usefulness for religion. We watch the duo in their hilarious attempts to convert the locals (including Nabulungi, enchantingly played by Tony Award winner Nikki James) and the entire show reaches its pinnacle with an African tribute to what the Ugandans have been taught to believe Mormonism is all about! The musical score is composed by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez. It is poppy with some underlying rock; and in my opinion, is much higher in quality than Lopez’s last production Avenue Q–a show that, while entertaining, was not one I was too fond of. All in all, The Book of Mormon is fluff at its finest. You’re not going to walk away from the show pondering the meanings of life; but you will be absolutely sore from the hilarity of the event! I would definitely recommend it. However, the tickets are at a VERY HIGH premium right now and must be purchased from a broker. So, unless you are okay with dropping several hundred dollars to see it, you’ll need to wait for some of the buzz to die down. Currently, the show is completely sold-out through January 2012.normal-heart.jpg The second show of the weekend, which by far had the biggest impact on me personally, was The Normal Heart, the riveting story of the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City between 1981-1984. The show was led by an amazingly talented (and famous) cast that gave performances that were chilling to the bone. It is difficult to put into words the experience this show provides to those who watch it.  It is one of those rare theatrical experiences that truly makes an astonishing impact on your soul. While the entire cast was simply phenomenal, the three standouts from the show are Joe Mantello (a longtime staple of musical theater and the director of the Broadway sensation Wicked), Ellen Barkin (the famous screen and television actress), and John Benjamin Hickey (from Showtime’s “The Big C”). Mantello’s character Ned (based on AIDS activist Larry Kramer) is faced with insurmountable challenges that seem to be worsening by the minute–his brother Ben, a hotshot successful attorney (Mark Harelik), has never truly accepted Ned’s homosexuality and he is watching a mysterious illness ravage his friends and lover Felix (played by Hickey) as it spreads like a wildfire through his community. He assembles a small army of friends, including Dr. Emma Brookner (played marvelously by Barkin, who gives what very well could be the performance of her career), that would serve as the foundation of the AIDS movement that faced an epic uphill political battle on every front imaginable. The cast executed the story (written by Kramer, the man who experienced it firsthand) so impeccably perfect that I truly felt like I had been swept back in time and immersed as a witness into the hellish events of the era. We watch as beloved characters die horrific deaths; our hearts are ripped from our chests as we hear the nightmarish stories of the disgusting discrimination that thrived; and our souls sink to unimaginable depths as we feel the pain and frustration these men experienced. And yet as helpless as we are to do anything about it, we are also inspired. As a gay man, I can easily see how the contributions these men made to my community are as palpable and relevant today as they were 30 years ago. And I stand solidly behind my belief that the closet is the most dangerous place on the planet. The Normal Heart was one of the most moving, engaging, and emotional experiences I have ever had in a theater. It is tragic the show had to close. But I am forever grateful for being given the opportunity to experience it from such an outstanding cast.2245427screenshot2011-06-09at10440pm.jpg The final show of my Broadway weekend was Death Takes a Holiday. This is a show that I was really looking-forward to seeing ever since it was announced, mainly because it was written and composed by Peter Stone and Maury Yeston, the duo responsible for my all-time favorite Broadway musical ever–Titanic (1997 winner of 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical). While the groundbreaking and breathtaking technical elements of Titanic are completely absent from Death Takes A Holiday, its lush score stirs many memories of that tremendous musical that graced the stage over a decade ago. The story takes place in the late 1940’s and centers around the wealthy Lamberti family, that after experiencing a close-call with death are visited by a strange Prince, (actually Death himself, who has taken human form so he can experience the joys, loves, and losses of life as a human for just a few short days). As the Prince/Death (played superbly by a devilishly handsome Julien Ovenden) bonds and collides with the family, he falls in love with Grazia (Jill Paice, who’s voice and performance were both heavenly), who in the process of falling for the Prince, learns a powerful lesson herself, that love is a power that transcends life completely. The musical numbers are all masterfully crafted by Yeston and musical director Kevin Stites (also of Titanic). A dance sequence in the first act reminded me slightly of Titanic’s “Latest Rag” and truly lifted my spirit; but the Act I finale truly stole the show (and my heart). Death Takes A Holiday is magical, moving, and triumphant! The Lambertis’ lives are filled with the endless joys and heartaches we all have had in our lives. And as we see Death learn the happiness and sorrows of life (albeit very quickly) we are reminded of the growth and maturation we have all had during our human experiences. This show is a gift and is one that should not be missed. Death Takes A Holiday is playing at the Laura Pels Theater (Roundabout Theatre Company) through September 4th, 2011. Below, watch the montage for the show:

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