An uncommonly tumultuous life
Rude humor, raw anguish meet in ‘Mormons’
PITTSFIELD - Standing before the audience on opening night of “Mormons, Mothers and Monsters,’’ composer William Finn drolly welcomed them to “the only Mormon show you can get tickets to.’’
But as Finn knows better than anyone, having helped nurture this impressive new musical as the artistic producer of Barrington Stage Company’s Musical Theatre Lab, “Mormons, Mothers and Monsters’’ has a lot more going for it than the fact that, unlike Broadway’s Tony-winning “The Book of Mormon,’’ it’s not sold out from here to eternity.
“Mormons,’’ now at BSC’s Stage 2 under the imaginative direction of Adrienne Campbell-Holt, is the product of a collaboration between Sam Salmond, a precociously talented 23-year-old who wrote the lyrics and book, and 29-year-old composer Will Aronson.
The musical is rudely funny in spots, ragged and glib in others, but there is raw anguish at its heart.
Salmond drew on his own Mormon upbringing in Pittsburgh as the son of a thrice-married mother, and if his childhood was half as tumultuous as what we see here, he deserves credit for simply surviving it, much less crafting such a compellingly original work from the raw materials of his life.
“Mormons’’ takes a deliberately stylized and over-the-top approach to the tale of its autobiographical protagonist, who is divided into two characters: a 20-something narrator identified in the playbill as “Me’’ (Stanley Bahorek), and a character identified as “Mormon’’ (but also referred to as Sam or Samuel a few times), who is portrayed by Taylor Trensch, from kindergarten age to early adulthood, when he finally escapes his Pittsburgh home and goes to New York University.
Mormon’s mom, called simply Mother (Jill Abramovitz), is devout and fundamentally loving but so erratic she makes Sophie Portnoy look like a paragon of maternal stability.
In the song “God Made Everything Good,’’ when her son asks her where pain comes from, she blithely replies: “Baby, it comes from God / It’s how he tells us if we sinned.’’ Because she believes that “you need a father and a husband to be a family in heaven,’’ Mother keeps trying but failing at matrimony. As she veers from one catastrophically bad marriage to another, she invariably announces the news of each succeeding divorce to her son by presenting him with a bowl of mint chocolate-chip ice cream.
Both Mother’s parenting style and the tone of “Mormons’’ are vividly conveyed early on, when she explains to the boy that she and his biological father are splitting up. “Umm . . . you know how like Grandpa died last year and we put him in the ground and Grandma was left all sad, shriveled, and alone?’’ she says. “It’s like that, except we won’t bury your dad, since he’s only emotionally dead to us.’’
But it’s not long before Mother is married again, this time to a gay man who is trying to convince himself he’s straight, and whose unresolved anger at his own father leads him to beat Mormon. Dad No. 2 also delivers this devastating message to the boy: “No matter what you do, you will never be worthy of love.’’ Husband No. 3 is secretive, tightly wound, and harboring a very dark secret (which, it turns out, Mother knew all along).
Mother’s injudicious taste in husbands, when it’s not actually thrusting Mormon into harm’s way, keeps him in a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty. He blames himself for the fact that his fathers keep disappearing, and he is also grappling with questions about God, his body, his sexuality, his place in the world.
That’s where the Monster (Adam Monley) comes in. A creature with large, ragged claws and a headdress like one of the marauding thugs in “The Road Warrior,’’ the Monster periodically materializes to challenge, provoke, and mock Mormon. In “Underneath Your Bed,’’ occasionally singing in gibberish, the Monster tells the boy: “Kid, what you know is wrong / Open up your mind / Fargle pooka shmong! / And you gonna find / Up above the world is lies / False promises and failed tries. / Boogledee smoogledee fo! / Come with me down below.’’
Monley’s performance adroitly keeps us guessing about the Monster - Tormentor or truth-teller? Fear-monger or an aspect of Mormon’s slowly awakening self? - and he also does a nice job playing all three dads, etching indelible mini-portraits of each.
As Me, the adult version of Mormon, Bahorek artfully communicates the degree to which some wounds have healed and some have not. As young Mormon, Trensch needs to project better on some of the early songs, but on balance he delivers a performance that poignantly registers the impact of each of the bumps on this boy’s uncommonly rocky journey, along with the joy and release he feels when he fully embraces his gay identity.
Abramovitz gives Mother the chirpy obliviousness of a zealot and the vividly unstoppable force of a loose cannon, but there is sympathy, too, in her portrayal, especially during a strong rendition of “Sometimes Someone You Love,’’ when Mother confesses to Mormon her own confusion and disappointment: “She’d give you a dad / If only she knew how / Yeah, sometimes someone you love / Doesn’t ever quite come through.’’
Later in “Mormons,’’ however, when the son reprises “Sometimes Someone You Love,’’ it takes the form of a scathingly angry indictment - and a declaration of independence.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.