The Book of Mormon (Broadway San Diego)

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There’s no need to be a fan of South Park to enjoy the 2011 Tony award-winning musical, The Book of Mormon. This religious musical satire follows two young Mormon men to Uganda for missionary work. They soon discover that spreading the Latter Day Saint’s doctrine isn’t as easy as they had thought, especially when the local villagers are more concerned with threats to their own safety from AIDS, corrupt militia, and female genital mutilation. Joining an Elder group already assigned to Uganda, the two newbies, Elder Price (James David Larson) and Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), believe that if the natives give the Mormon faith a chance, they will convert.

The mission goes awry when Price, who wishes he were assigned to Orlando, bails on the group, and goofball Cunningham (who is a cross between the personas of Jonah Hill and Chris Farley) is put on the spot to preach The Book to the locals. There’s only one problem, Cunningham hasn’t read the entire book. He fakes it until he makes it, bringing in dogma from Star Wars, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. Cunningham’s teachings are of another allegiance, but certainly one that’s a lot more fun and, quite frankly, ridiculous. Just imagine what happens when the locals perform a skit of what they learned for the Mormon review committee. All hell breaks loose, but the two tribes come together for a happy ending.

Creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone bring in some crude humor and profanity. Their use of naïve and nerdy Mormon men uniting with lively Africans will get you to smile and laugh, making for an entertaining show.

Even the delivery of lines, lyrics, and choreography is well thought out and gives a bit of playfulness to the overall musical, especially in “Turn It Off”, when the Elders explain how to manage so-called negative feelings, like dealing with an abusive parent and thoughts of being gay. Turning your thoughts off like a light switch is their simple answer. Completely ridiculous, but then again, that’s the point.

The set and costumes were not overdone, which made it easy to follow the storyline and not get distracted by an elaborate production.

The cast was outstanding and Cody Jamison Strand gave a funny and energetic performance.

RED (San Diego REP)

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Creating art is a unique process for each individual artist. The final masterpiece can be a migration of inspiration, reflection and temperament. RED takes the audience through the journey of Mark Rothko’s “Seagram Murals”, a series of paintings, commissioned by the beverage company, Seagram, which were to be displayed in The Four Seasons, an upscale New York restaurant.

The American abstract expressionist constantly asks, “What do you see?”  The real question should be “What to you feel?”  After all, Rothko wants the viewer to have an emotional connection to his art. To think that RED implies the color would be to make the same mistake Rothko (John Vickery) makes when his assistant, Ken (Jason Maddy), recommends red in one of the paintings. Ken frustratingly states, “I didn’t mean red paint only. I meant the emotion of red at sunrise.” As Rothko argues, “sunrise isn’t red.” The two get into a vocal spar and list red objects that evoke certain feelings: passion, atrial blood, apples, the sun in Rousseau, the albino’s eyes, nick yourself shaving, the Ruby Slippers, the Russian flag, sport cars­—the list goes on. Playwright John Logan’s creative approach of having the two actors actually paint a large canvas red on stage draws the audience in for their own art experience, giving us the opportunity to contemplate our own feelings of red.

John Vickery as Rothko in RED.

John Vickery as Rothko in RED.
(Photo by Daren Scott)

As we observe Rothko’s creative process and arrogant personality, we also witness his vulnerability when Ken explodes and berates Rothko for his attitude toward the art world. The outburst leads to a pivotal moment for Rothko and the commissioning of his murals.

This 2010 Tony award-winning play runs until April 27 at San Diego REP. It’s a fantastic play that sparks an interest in Rothko’s art and allows the audience to share in the emotional process of creating it.

Spring Awakening (Cygnet Theatre)

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It’s always fascinating to see a play that was once considered controversial for its time. Teen sex, homosexuality, abortion, rape, child abuse and suicide were not subjects openly discussed in 1891 when German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote Spring Awakening. This 2007 Tony Award-winning musical adaptation by Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (composer) examines the trials of a group of repressed German teenagers.

The combination of 19th century costumes and original rock music are juxtaposed to represent the coming of age of the play from the old world to modern times. The open set and minimal props gave the actors plenty of space to aggressively dance and spring into high jumps from conventional wooden chairs. The backdrop of shining and sometimes flickering light bulbs and graphic images projected on the floor of the stage created a rock star vibe suggestive of teen rebellion.

The energetic cast delivered a good performance with creative choreography that expressed frustration and a desire for sexual connection. It’s unfortunate that it was difficult to clearly hear all the lyrics. Perhaps louder microphones would have provided some benefit, since the songs vocalize the angst of teenage life, especially in “The Bitch of Living”.

When not in a scene, the actors were seated at the right and left sides of the stage to observe each character’s journey through puberty and confusion over questions unanswered by their parents and school officials. This clever aspect signifies that all teenagers experience a river of emotions and the hormonal shift–it’s not just you.

As stated in the playbill, “Every scene was based on Wedekind’s life or that of his friends.” It’s no wonder that reinventing Spring Awakening is what makes this musical more accessible for today’s society and certainly for teen youth.

Theatre Geek and Dave Thomas Brown (Lead actor, Melchior)

Theatre Geek and Dave Thomas Brown
(Lead, Melchior)