Besides, how many good musicals can you name that include Jesus? I don’t even need the fingers of one hand for that one.
With a book, music, and lyrics by “South Park” co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez, “The Book of Mormon” is a cheerfully vulgar satire on the foolishness of religious literalism that’s also a gloss of the classic “mismatched buddies” movie. The buddies in this case are handsome, absurdly confident, and terminally self-involved Elder Price and dumpy, nerdy Elder Cunningham, who compensates for his lack of confidence by telling wildly improbably stories assembled from his sci-fi and fantasy obsessions.
Having just completed the Mormon missionary training (hilariously portrayed in the opening number, “Hello”), the boys are shipped to a poverty-stricken village in Uganda, where the locals respond to problems of AIDS, dysentery, and threats of female genital mutilation from a local warlord by shrugging their shoulders and singing "Hasa Diga Eebowai" while giving God the finger. It’s a tough house and when Price’s self-aggrandizing sermon ("All-American Prophet") fails to win converts, he loses his faith and runs off. Cunningham, who has never bothered to read the real “Book of Mormon” (it’s too boring), is left to improvise a version of it based on a mashup of Mormon history, “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and “Lord of the Rings.” He succeeds (“Man Up”), and creates a whole new set of problems.
You can get the rest of the story from Wikipedia, but the bottom line is that underneath all the crude satire and joking references to past and present Broadway musicals there’s an actual Author’s Message: don’t let your obsession with the details of old fables blind you to what the fables are trying to tell you—that religion is there to help people. When it stops doing that, it fails.
The cast for this tour is impressive, without a weak performance anywhere. The night we saw the show, the role of Elder Price was played by the standby, Jonathan Cullen, and I have to say he caught the character’s combination of enthusiasm and self-congratulatory cluelessness perfectly. Christopher John O’Neill was endearingly funny as Elder Cunningham. The two were a great Mutt-and-Jeff pair.
Samantha Marie Ware, with her powerful voice and good sense of her character’s vulnerability, was a knockout as Nabulungi, the daughter of the local tribal chief and chaste semi-love interest for Cunningham. There were great performances as well from Grey Henson as Elder McKinley, the local Mormon mission chief in radical denial about his gayness; Derrick Williams as the warlord whose name I can’t print on this website; and Mike McGowan as LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and assorted other authority figures.
Ann Roth’s costumes and Scott Pask’s sets are brightly cartoonish—very appropriate for the show’s origins. The sets are also very mobile, so scene changes are lighting quick. Framing everything is a gaudy false proscenium done up in the style of the Salt Lake City Temple, complete with a rotating golden Angel Moroni on top.
The choreography by Casey Nicholaw (who is also credited as director, along with Mr. Parker) is a funny stew of current Broadway styles, mostly with satirical intent. It’s executed with great precision by the cast. The Parker/Stone/Lopez score may not be memorable, but it provides plenty of laughs and is often very clever in a Tom Lehrer way. And yes, that is definitely a compliment.
One of the reasons “The Book of Mormon” is such a success, I think, is that it’s designed for an audience that may not care that much about musicals. It’s really a freewheeling bit of satire that happens to use song and dance, with just enough in-jokes to keep the musical theatre fans happy and enough of a real story to make you care about the satire. That’s a pretty smart combination and it makes it worth seeing.
Be aware though, that this is not what you’d call a family-friendly show, so leave the kids and anyone that’s bothered by frequent explosions of the f-bomb at home.
Perhaps the biggest joke of “The Book of Mormon”, though, may be the way the LDS Church has responded to it: by taking out ads in the program and stationing real missionaries in their white shirts and black pants and ties outside the theatre offering free copies of the real “Book of Mormon.” Other religions should take note.
“The Book of Mormon” plays the Fox in Grand Center through Sunday, March 3rd. For more information: fabulousfox.com.