Monday, January 6, 2014

The gobbledygook of 'Mormon'

I broke my vacation to review "The Book of Mormon" and had an enjoyable time, thinking no more about the show after I went back to my days off. Yet over the next two weeks, I have heard more complaints about the sound design than I have for any other show at Belk Theater in years.

I prepared for the review by listening to songs on the CD and reading lyrics in the accompanying booklet. So I have no way to know whether I "understood" the singers onstage because I could hear them clearly or because the songs triggered words in my brain. I'd guess no one else familiar with the show would know, either.

But seven different people who had never heard "Mormon" said they had problems making songs out, whether in big concerted numbers (where a muddle is pretty common) to solos. Comments came from people who sat in the center orchestra, rear orchestra and front mezzanine, so the sufferers weren't plagued by one dead spot in the Belk. (If there are any.) Complainants came from at least three different audiences, and none attended on opening night (when, perhaps, all the bugs might not have been worked out).

Sound checks made before opening remain an iffy business: The house is empty, and engineers can't really know what numbers will sound like in an unfamiliar hall. That's why someone stays at the sound board during a show, fine-tuning as needed. Of course, he adjusts the sound at least partly to his own satisfaction. A sound designer once told me that's why many Broadway tours seem loud to audiences: People managing sound have gotten so used to a certain noise level that they continually believe it needs to be boosted a little.

Critics generally get good seats, so I'm hesitant to apply my own responses to the rest of the audience -- especially, as noted, if I'm familiar with a piece. And even I never expect any chorus, from the one in 'Book of Mormon' to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to be intelligible all the time. But when so many people tell me they couldn't understand what was being sung, I have to assume a sound designer was asleep at the switch.


Archiguy said...

That's true. We went last Thursday and had great seats, front row mezzanine. While I had a fairly easy time understanding the solos, most of the time but not always, the group numbers were hopeless - just a muddled, unintelligible mess.

I told my wife we were going to have to try and find the song lyrics online so I could understand more of the show's humor, since most of it derives from the songs themselves. I'll buy that CD you reference if I have to.

The orchestra often simply overwhelms the singers' voices, even when amplified, in musical shows but in this case it did seem like the sound engineer did an especially poor job. At $140 a ticket, we expected better.

Anonymous said...

Local stores should have the original cast album, but here's a link to the CD on sale at Amazon. New and used copies go for about $9:

Anonymous said...

"Neutrogena's" solo was so muddled we had no clue what was being sung. Middle mezzanine volume was fine, elocution was not. Otherwise, great energy, dance, and humor.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't understand most anything at all, and it had seen it before in NYC. Luckily went for free otherwise I'd be asking for a full refund. Great play was ruined.

Willy Loman said...

Agreed. Had a heck of a time trying to catch words and keep up. I thought it was because I was high, but my wife and others I was there with had problems too.

Stuart S said...

We were front row mezz and multiple times by wife asked "What?" I found it especially bad at the beginning when they were in front of a drop. We even had a good bit of speaker feedback in the first couple songs. It got better when things shifted to Africa. It wasn't so bad that I was angry... but I was definitely surprised.