Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The New York Cherney Journey: Send in the Dancing Mormons!

I finally broke my Broadway cherry.

When planning our New York adventure, Laurie and I agreed that we most definitely had to take in a Broadway show just like every other dumb hick travellin' to the Big City for the first time. (I being the hick in this equation. She already had the pleasure.) Technically, I had visited Manhattan once before back in the mid seventies, but I only spent an afternoon, almost got killed by a cabbie and went to a movie ROLLERBALL, to be exact. Therefore, even though I'd been to Broadway, I hadn't given my regards or to translate : No show for this Joe. I was a Broadway show virgin, longing to be touched for the very first time. So the question became "What to see?" After much research and deliberation, I reluctantly offered, "I dunno.

Nothing against that show which I am sure is just mah-velous. It just didn't didn't float our boat. Maybe time had taken its toll on said Disney musical's relevance in our eyes. In the good ol' wintertime of 2011, going to THE LION KING held about as much appeal as a musical version of THE KING'S SPEECH starring Mel Tillis.

One morning in the good ol' wintertime, we were watching a re-broadcast of THE DAILY SHOW as Jon Stewart was just shamelessly fawning over his guests, Trey Parker and Matt Stone from SOUTH PARK and heaping buckets of accolades about their brand spanking new Broadway musical. That's when it hit us simultaneously. We had to see THE BOOK OF MORMON. Miraculously (and I don't use that word lightly here), I scored a pair of matinee tickets for us online. This turned out to be the first serendipitous green light of our foray to the Great White Way.

Honored daughter Lindsay managed to obtain a lunch reservation for us at Ma Peche, the hot-as-balls Manhattan French/Vietnamese eatery from chef David Chang (seen most recently on the second season of TREME). And under her skilled subway tutelage, she felt confident we could navigate our way from Brooklyn to the downtown area without provocation. In other words, she released us into the wild.

She was right. The subway line to the theater district was pretty much of a straight line and basically idiot-proof. Along the way, we were serenaded by a quartet performing a little doo-wop version of “Shake, Rattle & Roll” finishing and passing the hat the moment we pulled into our station. With time a'tickin' quickly toward our High Noon reservation, Laurie and I navigated our way toward (what we hoped) was the right direction. Along the way, I couldn't help but to be still enthralled by various landmarks like Radio City Music Hall ( playing a new Cirque de Soleil show. Acrobatic Rockettes? The mond boggles...) and 30 Rockefeller Center, but we had to trudge on. No time to ice skate now. Our final destination was supposedly at the end of the block, but that was a New York City block, five times the size of what we were used to. But, sho’ nuff, we found Ma Peche and walked in its front doors at straight up twelve o’clock. Impeccable timing.

We started with a superb shrimp curry, probably the most luscious I’ve ever eaten. I'd give it an A-, the minus only because the portion size wasn't large enough. This was followed by their take on a banh minh sandwich. I found it quite tasty, but not the explosion of flavor I hoped for, so I graded it a solid B. Since we were sharing anyway, we decided to order another sandwich and were so glad we did. This was they called a Beef and Pork Belly Hero with crab mayonnaise and green papaya, one of the single best things I’ve ever had the pleasure to have in my mouth in my life. Make of that what you will, it was a grand slam home run and an A+. You see, I'm not so much of a food critic as I am a substitute teacher.

Finding the Eugene O’Neill Theatre took basically no time or effort at all, just a hop, skip and a jump until we reached a line that extended from the entrance, down 49th and around the corner to 5th Avenue. This was one hot ticket. Once inside this hallowed structure, we found our seats in the last row of the upper mezzanine, a tight squeeze to be sure with less leg room than Michael Jordan would get on Southwest Airlines. Still, we were dead freaking center with a complete panoramic view of the stage. That is, until Bob and Mitzi arrived, taking the seats in the row in front of us. I called her Mitzi because, well, she looked like a Mitzi. And we named him Bob because he kept bobbing his head back and forth no matter which way Laurie tried to look throughout the first act. She’d lean to the left and he bobbed left. She went right, Bob went right. I was more fortunate since Mitzi was a little thing though I felt wedged in like a piece of carry-on luggage in the overhead compartment. (We switched for Act II and all was well)

Now on with the show…

Have you ever had an experience not only met your expectations but actually exceeded them? After reading all the praise this show had received along with its multiple Tony awards, I just knew THE BOOK OF MORMON was going to be a great experience. I just didn’t know how great. The first thing heard is a doorbell and an ultra clean cut young man in a short sleeve white shirt and tie begins to sing “Hello. My name is Elder Price…” From that moment on I was hooked, line and sinker. Parker, Stone and Robert Lopez, who co-wrote another show I admired AVENUE Q, have rebooted American musical theater with this tale of Mormon missionaries in Uganda, a show that is at turns sharp, vulgar, rousing, satirical and ultimately on target and gut-bustingly hilarious. My two favorite songs had to be THE LION KING parody (how apropos) "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (it ain't no "Hakuna Matata", that's for sure) and probably the finest but certainly the funniest production numbers I've ever seen "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream". The two leads, Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, admirably carry the show on their Latter-Day Saint shoulders. Rannels perfectly fits the bill as uber-Mormon Elder Price, channelling his inner Osmond broadly but to great effect. As his half-a-bubble-off-plum co-hort Arnold, Gad comes across as the bastard child of Chris Farley and Zero Mostel and that's a good thing. The entire production, as directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw, was absolutely top notch from start to finish. Oddly enough, the last time I felt so exhilarated in the theater was LES MISERABLES, a show that is the polar opposite of MORMON. Somehow, they both tapped into the core of the love of theater I used to have. Once I was lost, but thanks to THE BOOK OF MORMON, now I am found. It's certainly not a show for the easily-offended or even the faint of heart. That are comedic gasps in this show that will either tickle you relentlessly or make you cringe in horror. Fortunately, I'm the former. Then again, I have a sense of humor, a modicum of intelligence and a (mostly) open mind.

But was it (gasp) profane? Sure it was. It mocks the Mormon religion inside and out, using it as the scapegoat for all organized religions and their origins. Is the tale of the Mormons more ludicrous than the rest due to its more recent history? Not necessarily. Fairy tales to one person may be somebody else's belief system. It's all a matter of perception, isn't it? That's probably the most difficult concept of all to swallow. That is, unless you happen to be a rational human being. Good luck with that one. But deep down, in all of its ridicule, I found that THE BOOK OF MORMON carries a positive message of the power of faith in this wicked world. On the other hand, it also contains the catch-phrase "I have maggots in my scrotum!"

After THE BOOK OF MORMON, Laurie and I headed for Times Square, the only real landmark I took in back '75. We stood by the statue of George M. Cohan and I showed her the exact spot where that taxi nearly mowed me down 36 years before. We soaked in the atmosphere, the hustle, bustle and spectacle of it all. In the midst of all the huddled masses and every day chaos all about us, it was there and then I realized that we were having the best date we've had in years. Someone might have been smiling upon us that Wednesday in New York City. Maybe it was even the city itself. What-or who-ever it was, we had an absolutely perfect day.

How many of those do you ever get in your life?
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