Laugh and cry at two Broadway shows

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Michael Toscano

In The Book of Mormon, David Larsen (left) and Cody Jamison star as two Mormon elders on a mission trip to Africa, where they are confronted by Monica L. Patton in full tribal regalia. The hit musical, by the creators of the animated TV show “South Park,” continues at the Kennedy Center through Aug. 16.
© Joan Marcus, 2014

If you’re looking to escape the first couple of weeks of D.C.’s August heat and humidity, but can’t get away on vacation, consider the refuge offered by a couple of cool shows finishing up their runs at the Kennedy Center. Two must-see musicals are on the boards and, amazingly enough, seats are still available.

I’m talking, of course, about The Book of Mormon — the monster (and monstrously funny) Broadway hit making a return engagement to the marble palace on the Potomac — and Once, the lesser known and much quieter Irish fable of love and music. Mormon is in the Opera House and Once is in the Eisenhower Theater, both running through Sunday, August 16. 

This is probably your last chance to see Broadway-level productions of these two great shows locally. The Book of Mormon’s second stop here follows a record-breaking, sold-out run two seasons back. So it’s probably done with D.C.

A scaled-down version might stop by one of the rental venues from time to time. But this is the real thing, to be savored and remembered.

And while Once is a thoroughly lovely show with a devoted following, it’s probably not commercially viable enough to warrant a KenCen return.

Missionary misadventures

In case you somehow missed it, The Book of Mormon won the Tony Award for Best Musical, along with best score, best book and six other Tonys, in 2011. It also won just about every other New York theater award that year.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of TV’s long-running and profanely comic animated series South Park, teamed up with Robert Lopez for the story and songs.

It takes us along on a misadventure-filled missionary trip by two “young elders” to an impoverished African community. They make for  an odd couple: a straight-laced and totally focused overachiever paired with a bumbling and sweet-natured compulsive liar.

There is a lot of broad comic shtick, as well as toe-tapping production numbers, a couple of dulcet ballads, and lots of blue material and jokes made at the expense of Mormons everywhere. 

Surprisingly, The Book of Mormon remains generally good-natured, lacking bitterness as it ribs the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That’s probably why there has been little complaint coming from Salt Lake City. The show may lampoon the Church, but the Mormons we meet are decent people with a laudatory moral code (notwithstanding a few pointed references to such matters as the Church’s extremely belated embrace of a multi-racial society).

The early Broadway leads, and even most of their replacements, have long moved on to stardom elsewhere, but the two leading characters are played here to laugh-generating perfection by Cody Jamison Strand (who has played the role on Broadway) and David Larsen.

The plump and vocally inventive Strand makes the show his story with a theater-filling charisma based on slapstick physicality, agile dance moves, rapier-sharp timing, and an infectious sense of fun generated by the twists and turns of his wildly expressive voice. His Elder Cunningham may be a serial liar, but when he puts that talent to use to develop a tale of Mormonism the Africans will find palatable, we love him all the more for it. It’s just too bad none of it can be printed here.

Larsen has the challenging task of shining as Elder Price — as serious a Mormon missionary as Cunningham is silly. He plays it straight, mostly, but with just enough tongue-in-cheek to let you know there’s a rascally John McCain somewhere behind the Mitt Romney façade. 

Both actors are capable singers, with Strand standing out in the sharp duet “Baptize Me,” sung with Candace Quarrels. She plays the lovely Ugandan Nabulungi, and temporarily hijacks the show in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” a solo paean to what she imagines a shining Salt Lake City is like.

Larsen gets his chance to own the place — and grabs it with both hands — in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” This dynamic number has Elder Price traversing Satan’s lair in the top theatrical moments of the production. Hellish lighting, music, dance, and a parade of Price’s fantasy “sins” swirl through his fevered nightmare.

A wistful Once

Street musician Guy (Stuart Ward) falls for Girl (Dani de Waal) in Once, a musical based on an Irish film. On Broadway, Once won eight Tony Awards, as well as a Grammy for best musical theater album. Like The Book of Mormon, Once continues through Aug. 16 at the Kennedy Center.
© Joan Marcus

And for something totally different, a theatrical palate-cleanser, if you will, there is Once. It’s based on a little independent film from Ireland, released in 2007, about a guitar player and songwriter who performs in Dublin streets, singing about a lost love.

A sensitive, sensuous ballad from Glen Hansard called “Falling Slowly” went on to win an Oscar as Best Song. And if you need more information about the musical’s pedigree, it was celebrated on Broadway with eight Tony Awards, not to mention a Grammy for best musical theater album.

Our musician, named Guy, is played by Stuart Ward — a Liverpool native who is a recognized singer and songwriter back home. His ability to explore the depth of meaning in a song are highlighted in “Leave,” as he laments his love leaving him for America. 

He is paired with Dani de Waal as Girl, who discovers him and resolutely pushes him to live a life of music. Of course, if their relationship were simple, there would be no story. And there is a story with many folds here, played out with a combination of emotional realism and sweet charm.

As they discover new things about themselves and are drawn together over their common passion for music, the complications are leavened with light comedy and the quirks of a supporting cast of warmly drawn characters.

de Waal nicely complements Ward’s smoky intensity with her vivacity. She seems to sing from the heart, perfectly suited for the infectious Celtic-tinged, Irish folk-rock score. The duets she shares with Ward, “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” are some of the show’s best moments.

If you’re still unsure, go online and check out the music performed by Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who played Guy and Girl in the film. You’ll probably especially like the song from Girl called “The Hill.” 

The Eisenhower is turned into a convivial Irish pub for Once, and if you don’t mind getting there half an hour early and forking over a little extra money, you can quaff a drink on the set and enjoy some pre-show music.

There’s no drinking at the Mormon show, of course.

The Book of Mormon and Once are onstage through Aug. 16 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW in Washington, D.C. Tickets are on sale at the Kennedy Center Box Office at (202) 467-1324, or online at Tickets currently available for Book of Mormon range from $90 to $250. Once tickets range from $60 to $165.

For information, visit

The Kennedy Center will accommodate accessibility needs, including wheelchairs and assistive listening devices. Call (202) 416-8727 (voice) or 202-416-8728 (TTY) for more information. To reserve a courtesy wheelchair, call (202) 416-8340.