When Northwest Arkansas was sold on the idea of a remodeled Walton Arts Center in downtown Fayetteville, one of the main selling points was the idea of bringing newer, bigger and bolder Broadway musicals to the region.
The original facility, built more than 25 years ago, could not accommodate some of the largest touring musicals due to the physical size of the stage and the load-in capabilities behind the curtain, we were told.
What: “The Book of Mormon”
When: Through Dec. 18
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Information: 479-443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org
Note: All shows are sold out.
The updated facility opened Nov. 19 with several smaller shows to follow. Tuesday (Dec. 13) offered the first chance for the newly renovated center to show off its current capabilities. The opportunity presented itself courtesy of “The Book of Mormon,” a musical written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of “South Park” fame) and Robert Lopez (of “Avenue Q”). Upon its debut on Broadway in 2011, “Book of Mormon” garnered rave reviews and brought home nine Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical. The original cast recording peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard album sales chart. For a comparison of its cultural impact, imagine “Hamilton” in a pre-viral news era, if you can think back five short years ago.
The production that comes to Fayetteville is part of the second national tour for “Book of Mormon,” and it remains a popular draw. The production runs at the Walton Arts Center through Sunday evening. Tickets for each of the shows are sold out and have been for several months.
So what did we receive as an introduction to the upgraded facility? A show that takes turns being racist, blasphemous, surprisingly topical and fall-out-of-your seat funny. It’s a sweet show, filled with heartbreak and young lust and redemption. It’s also a breathtakingly, stunningly vulgar show, and it contains the crudest song I’ve ever personally witnessed in a theater production (and another song that’s the runner-up to that title, too). The ticket stubs offer a “Parental Guidance: Explicit Language” warning in plain letters, and it certainly earns that warning.
But importantly, none of the crudeness discredits the show from its place on the stage. The cast is wonderful; the songs are catchy. The staging was phenomenal, and the audience was transported to different locations such as a missionary training center, a remote Ugandan village and deep into the bowels of Hell. The stage came alive with depth and height and levels. This is no doubt because the expanded back-of-house system of the WAC could accommodate a more expansive experience, and it took eight semi-trailers to haul in all of the set pieces and gadgetry used for the show.
When not deliberately pressing the buttons of crudeness, the show provides a very loose history lesson on the Mormon faith, although I’m not convinced that Jesus arrived in a light-up robe as he did during the musical. The Mormon church does send missionaries to far-flung places around the globe, and it is through this mechanism we find our plot points. Two missionaries get teamed up and sent to Uganda to convert the villagers. The first missionary, Elder Price (played by Gabe Gibbs), is polished, poised and destined for greatness in life and in the church. The second, Elder Cunningham (played on Wednesday night by Van Buren native Chad Burris), is everything his companion is not – he’s sloven, socially awkward and he wears a “Star Wars” backpack. They are the “Odd Couple” reimagined through the Mormon faith, complete with white shirts and nametags.
Their first attempts at converting the villagers are dismissed, and it’s clear it’s going to be a tough sell. There are pressing concerns in the village – AIDS, dangerous warlords and female genital mutilation among them. Undeterred, Elder Price wonders if there’s a feeling stirring inside one of the villagers. “Yes,” the villager replies. “I have maggots in my scrotum.” And off they go down an increasingly vulgar path.
“South Park” remains solvent because the satire there often finds a topical point despite the unconventional telling. “Avenue Q,” which came to the Walton Arts Center in 2009, focused on racism, poverty and the struggle to get ahead while also featuring plenty of crude humor. So it’s no surprise a musical from three artists involved in those projects would dive into blue territory while simultaneously tapping into common, relatable themes such as the questioning of faith and the search for a meaning to life. This is enlivened by a stellar cast, with ace performances by many, including the honey-voiced Nabulungi (played by Candace Quarrels). There’s also wildly ornate costuming and fierce choreography, perhaps best and most offensively captured in the song and dance number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.”
Speaking of the Mormons, considering the pop culture beating the church took onstage from this musical, they offered a very measured response not long after the show debuted.
“The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
And to paraphrase one of the songs, I believe there’s some truth in that statement. There’s plenty to drop your jaw at, marveling at how the creators of the show got away with it. But there’s also nothing that lasts more than an evening, with the exception of an earworm or two (Related: I just sang “I believe!” as I typed those words a moment ago). I heard pre-show grumblings curious about how many might walk out of the performance at its midway point. There were certainly no empty seats near me. No one is losing their own faith as a function of this piece of entertainment.
There’s certainly value in a good laugh, and there’s hope for the future. This is only the first big Broadway show in the Walton Arts Center’s new era. I believe I’m excited for more.