When Ben Brantley of New York Times famously commented that "The Book of Mormon" was "the best musical of this century," most readers assumed it was tongue-in-cheek hyperbole. Certainly, the review was a rave, more effervescent than almost any other Brantley had written. But "this century" was only a decade old when "The Book of Mormon" hit Broadway.
Now that people who frequent theater in this area have had a chance to see "The Book of Mormon," it's obvious that Brantley chose his words carefully and did not intend to exaggerate.
There can be little doubt: It's one of the very best musicals of all time. It would be wonderful surprise if someone would create a better musical before the dawn of the 22nd century.
The national tour has stopped in Tampa for a two-week run that continues through Nov. 24. A phenomenal cast and a killer orchestra complement a show with ridiculously catchy songs, luscious old-fashioned set design, fabulous costumes, lively (and often hilarious) choreography and a book that's relentlessly funny.
As stupendous as this show is, it's not for everybody. Maybe it's not even for most people. Anyone who's easily offended -- actually anyone who's even capable of being offended -- might be advised to steer clear. It's obscene and profane, and
makes fun of everything from pedophilia to Christianity.
But it's also buoyant and warm-hearted, and ultimately so positive that it can almost be called uplifting.
The writers are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys behind "South Park," and Robert Lopez, the co-composer of "Avenue Q." The story's about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda to seek converts. One of missionaries doesn't actually have the knowledge to preach the contents of the Mormon holy book, so he improvises a mixture of religion, pop culture and sci-fi.
There's not a weak link in this cast, but one of the most entertaining performances comes from Christopher John O'Neill as Elder Cunningham, the inept and needy missionary who turns out to be the show's heart.
O'Neill is a sketch comic who's making his professional debut in this show, and it's difficult to avoid predicting that he'll soon be a star.
Mark Evans is just as good in a less meaty role as Elder Price, the by-the-book missionary who dreams of visiting Orlando.
Samantha Marie Ware has the most dramatically rich role as Nabulungi, and she's radiant.
But the whole cast is energetic and entertaining, and equally at home with the book, the songs and the dancing.
The Mormon religion is the most frequent target of this show's jokes, and it's hard to see how Mormons don't take offense. But apparently they don't: The program for the Tampa production includes three full-page ads from the church, with such good-natured messages as "You've seen the play, now read the book" and "The book is always better."
You have to look really hard to find shortcomings here. You might say there are some points in act two where the energy lags, and you can definitely say that a lot of the lines are lost in the rapid dialogue and the lyrics.
But complaints like those are true of almost any musical. They're not worth noting in other shows, but this production of "The Book of Mormon" is so close to perfect that the tiniest flaws become apparent.
If you're not turned off by curse words or blasphemy, you should see this one soon, because you might want to see it more than once. Despite lots of foul language and a willingness to make jokes about any subject, "The Book of Mormon" is at its heart an old-fashioned musical in the tradition of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and very much in a league with their best work.
Details: Through Nov. 24 Carol Morsani Hall at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $69-$153.50 plus service charge. A drawing two hours before each show lets winners buy one or two tickets for $25 apiece. Call 813-229-7827 or go to www.strazcenter.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.