Broadway show blurbs can be banal and predictable, but not when it comes to The Book of Mormon. Oh, native Omahan Kurt Andersen might dub it “The best new musical of the 21st century” on NPR, but others call it “phenomenally blasphemous” and ask, “Could it be the most offensive show to ever hit the Great White Way?”
Maybe the blurb that best reflects this mix came from the New York Times: “Outrageous, profane and surprisingly endearing.”
If you haven’t seen the musical arriving at the Orpheum Saturday and running through Oct. 20, you probably think first of the two white-shirted Mormon missionaries, Elder Cunningham and Elder Price, first played on Broadway by Omahan Andrew Rannels. Think endearing, though, and the focus falls on Nabalungi, the Ugandan woman played by Syesha Mercado. She’s the reverent innocent amidst all the comic irreverence.
“It’s such a joy to play her,” says Syesha, who American Idol fans will recall as the runner-up before a final showdown between David Cook and David Archuleta. She recalls the Idol experience as “a boot camp” after her college preparation in Florida.
By the way, don’t expect her to recall if that year’s American Idol tour included Omaha. Not when they toured 68 cities in much less than a year.
She was packing her trunk in Chicago for the trip here when we talked about her endearing part in the craziness created by the South Park zanies, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with Robert Lopez, the co-creator of Avenue Q. She’s been performing the role in the Windy City for almost a year, but the Idol tour wasn’t her first time on the road.
Syesha, born in Connecticut to a Puerto Rican father and an African-American mother (a former Motown backup singer), traveled in the cast of Dream Girls. Her Uganda role may be more intense, but it’s easier in one respect—only two outfits compared to 22 costume changes for her role in Dream Girls.
The discipline and work ethic first instilled at the Manatee School for the Arts in Florida prepared her well for the grind of eight shows a week. And she makes sure she gets “lots of sleep and lots of water.”
Her role as Nabalungi places her in a village terrorized by General Butt F—ing Naked, who kills men and forces genital mutilation on women. All the villagers give up hope, except her Nabalungi who keeps hope alive, first with her mother’s story of waterfalls and unicorns, then when that story seems to come true as the two missionaries tell her about their paradise.
After standing up to her father for the first time, she’s alone in a hut and sings to God of this heaven she calls, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” Ms. Mercado had to explain to me that the title isn’t some Ugandan dialect, but the city the missionaries came from in Utah.
That’s her big solo, but not necessarily her favorite moment in a role she’s now played more than 300 times. She has the most fun singing “Baptize Me” with Elder Cunningham, the missionary who hadn’t quite gotten around to reading the actual Book of Mormon.
Still, ask many who’ve seen the show, and they’ll first refer to the beauty of her Salt Lake City song. And Idol fans will tell you about a petite Syesha with a voice big enough to wow audiences when she sang that high-octane Dolly Parton song made famous by the late Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You.”
So she takes care of the endearing side, and the rest of the cast carries the comic burden as contrasted by a Vogue writer who describes “a faith-based extravaganza of jaw-dropping obscenity, hair-raising blasphemy and irresistible good cheer.” He adds, its “dirty little secret is its big heart.”
Parker of South Park fame puts it this way: “Mormons are so Disney and Rodgers and Hammerstein to begin with that it makes perfect sense for them to break into song. That’s why, in many ways, this feels like a traditional musical. You’re being cheesy and corny and all—but that’s who Mormons naturally are.
“In the end, their spirit of wanting to help wins the day.” It all played a part in winning nine Tony awards and being the hottest ticket on Broadway in recent years.
The Book of Mormon runs 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, to 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 19, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19 at the Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St., part of Omaha Performing Arts Broadway Across America series. Tickets starting at $50 are available at TicketOmaha.com, by phone at 402.345.0606 or at the Holland Performing Arts Center, 13th and Douglas.