by Matthew Falduto
Iowa City – I have many fond memories of the original Hancher Auditorium from my time as a student at the University of Iowa in the 1990s. I first saw Rent at Hancher and it was a life changing experience for me. The devastating flood that destroyed the original Hancher was more than painful – it was a wound on the artistic soul of our city. Well, I am thrilled to tell you that Hancher is back and better than ever. You have to give the Hancher administration kudos for keeping the fire burning in the eight years between the flood and the creation of the new Hancher by performing shows in many different venues all over town, but it is beyond delightful to have this premier performance space in our city again. It is a perfect venue for excellent touring Broadway shows like The Book of Mormon (books, lyrics and music by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone), which runs through this weekend.
Before I get to the show itself, I must write about the space. The building design is beautiful, majestic and festooned with lights. The old Hancher had a more blocky feel to it – new Hancher (NuHancher?) is all about the curves. Inside the curves continue in the auditorium, as the different balcony sections have an almost wave like feel to them. Curved lines of lights hang from the ceiling and illuminate the auditorium. The seats are comfortable and the aisles wide – you won’t have to stand to allow someone to pass you to get to their seats. Everything about the space is gorgeous and alive. When you walk into Hancher, you feel you are part of something special.
Last night’s special event for me was The Book of Mormon, the satirical musical about the Church of Latter Day Saints from the creators of the TV show South Park. I have to admit somewhat embarrassingly that I knew very little about the show before last night. It’s one of the most popular musicals in recent history, but I never appreciated the humor of South Park and so I stayed away. Boy, was that a mistake. The show is raunchy, fun, biting and hilarious, and yet there’s a heart to it that is engaging and empowering.
The touring company brought a flawless production to the Hancher stage. The show follows the story of Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), two young Mormons who are off to Africa for their 2 year missionary experience. Price is excited about being a Missionary, though he was hoping for Orlando, Florida, not Uganda, Africa. Cunningham is a bit of a screw up, the missionary that no one wants to be paired with, who has a bit of lying problem. The two arrive in Uganda and discover it’s going to be a lot harder than they imagined to bring the Book of Mormon to the people they encounter, who are dealing with extremely difficult challenges, like AIDS, a violent warlord, and the threat of genital mutilation. Perhaps the most amazing part of the show is that they’re able to bring such wicked humor while addressing these incredibly depressing topics.
Bondy is perfect as Elder Price. It’s an incredibly physical performance, as he uses all of his lanky frame to accentuate and add to the comedy of each funny moment. His perfectly timed head swivel elicited laughter every time. Bondy is also great at taking us through the emotional highs and lows of Elder Price’s experience, using voice and posture to create the pain and joy each moment. His singing voice is excellent as well.
Strand stole the show every time he was on stage. He created a funny and endearingly annoying Elder Cunningham mostly through facial expressions, his wonderfully adaptable voice, and his utter sincerity. He was particularly effective when working with Candace Quarrels, who played Nabulungi, the young Ugandan woman who is most open to the teachings of Mormonism. Quarrels and Strand have a wonderful chemistry that made every scene they shared fun to watch.
Quarrels is fantastic in her own right, with a beautiful voice and a strong onstage presence. Her relationship with her father, Mafala (Sterling Jarvis), is the heart of the show. She projects the innocence of her character through wide eyes, but later we see flashes of anger when she feels betrayed. It’s a complete performance by a talented actress.
All of the supporting actors are excellent as well, from Jarvis’ protective father to Daxton Bloomquist’s Elder McKinley, the closeted missionary. And while the entire ensemble was great, I particularly enjoyed the work of scene stealer Kolby Kindle and excellent team player John Garry. Perhaps one of the most stunning moments by the missionary ensemble members was the excellent tap dance sequence in “Turn it Off”, one of the funniest songs of the whole show.
There were many other fun musical numbers, from the opening song, “Hello”, which introduces us to the Mormon indoctrination strategy, to “Hasa Diga Eebowai”, a song which sends the middle finger directly at God. Perhaps my favorites were “Making Things Up Again” where Cunningham uses his lies… uh, imagination… to suggest a better path for the Ugandans, and “Tomorrow is a Latter Day”, the moment of the show where its heart shines through most clearly.
The scenic design (Scott Pask) was well done, with different colored backdrops flying in creating a lot of depth to the space. Movable locations, like Mafala and Nabulungi’s home and the Missionaries’ headquarters, kept the action moving quickly. The lighting design ( Brian MacDevitt) complemented the scenic design well, particularly in the wonderful Hell scene, which was an outstanding conflagration of dance and music and unconnected cultural touchstones like Jeffrey Dahmer, Lt. Uhura and Yoda. Throw in some Hobbits and you get an idea of the wacky insanity of this show.
The Book of Mormon is a powerfully satirical show full of excellent dancing and wonderful singing. We are so fortunate to have a venue like Hancher Auditorium so these touring Broadway shows can visit our neck of the woods. I strongly encourage you to check out The Book of Mormon. And look, there’s a lottery for cheap tickets!