By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
July 13, 2013
"The Book of Mormon" has to be the most subversive Broadway musical in history.
All those other supposedly radical shows, the ones with nudity or such tough subjects as mental illness, just can't hold a candle to this insanely brilliant concoction about peppy, preachy young men from the Church of Latter-day Saints.
The mucho-Tony-Award-grabbing "Mormon," now at the Kennedy Center and due to hit the Hippodrome next season, comes from the creative team of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, who also helped unleash "South Park" on an unsuspecting world.
What they have achieved here is the seemingly impossible — an old-fashioned musical, with a structure that Irving Berlin or Rodgers and Hammerstein would recognize. (They would begrudgingly admire some of the catchy music, too.)
The opening song does what great opening numbers always did in the good old days. Production numbers are big and fun, just like they are supposed to be. (Casey Nicholaw, who shares co-direction credit with Parker, devised the very witty and kinetic choreography.)
But then there's the little matter of the script, which might make even Larry Flynt blush. This show crosses so many lines that you end up forgetting there ever were any lines.
And yet, somehow, those smiling missionaries in their short-sleeved white shirts and black ties just draw you in and practically force you to laugh at AIDS, cancer, female circumcision, pedophilia, warlording, maggots in a particularly uncomfortable part of the male anatomy, and, of course, the Mormon religion.
It's all so disarmingly nutty. By the time a bouncy song about cursing God comes along in the first act, you are either firmly in the show's grip or fleeing for the exit.
Not that fleeing ever seems to be a problem. "Mormon," which premiered in 2011, is still a hot ticket on Broadway, just as it has been on every stop of its first national tour. (On opening day of ticket sales at the Kennedy Center in February, the center's whole computer system crashed.)
The beauty of "Mormon" is that it manages to stay one step ahead of itself. The plot, centering around a couple of mismatched missionaries sent to Uganda, keeps the audience off-balance, bouncing from silliness to sentiment and back again; punching up the parody and profanity one second, only to reinforce some good old American value the next.
There really is a touch of heart at the core of the story, and when it peers through, it can be remarkably affecting.
It happens when Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill), the chunky, clunky missionary with a most tentative grasp on Mormon doctrine, thinks he has finally found a best friend in the quintessentially Mormonistic Elder Price (Mark Evans). It happens again when that friendship shatters and then is repaired.
And it happens when the Ugandans, besieged by every possible calamity and smothered by poverty, reveal just how wise they are. (The show's treatment of the African characters and issues is especially edgy and dangerous.)
When it comes to the topic raised by the show's title, well, the Angel Moroni would not be amused, but it's hard to keep a straight face seeing the deconstruction of Mormon history that goes on here. The re-creations, with appearances by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and even Jesus, are especially hilarious.
The satiric shots could just as easily be directed at any religion, needless to say, which is the point, really. Everybody's got some explaining to do. (Oddly enough, the old issue of Mormon polygamy doesn't get a barb in the musical.)
Some things work better than others. A running gag about texting in the Ugandan village falls flat. The very "South Park"-y "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" sequence wears out its welcome. But these prove minor matters.
The touring production hardly makes for an intimate experience in the cavernous Kennedy Center Opera House, but it's first-rate all the way. The cast and sets (Scott Pask) are on a par with what I encountered on Broadway.
Evans does a winning job, in acting and singing, as Elder Price, the guy who dreams of such a lovely place for proselytizing, and has quite a time adjusting to what Heavenly Father has apparently deemed a more fitting trial for him.
O'Neill, nimble-footed and loaded with great facial expressions, is a terrific foil as Cunningham. He brings down the house with "Man Up," the outrageous Act 1 finale that puts a fresh spin on the question, "What would Jesus do?" And Samantha Marie Ware is a gem as Nabulungi, who yearns to leave her forlorn village for a magical city in Utah.
It may be hard to believe, given that it so often suggests an Up with People troupe on heavy drugs, but "The Book of Mormon" is enough to restore one's faith in musical theater.
If you go
"The Book of Mormon" runs through Aug. 18 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W. Limited ticket availability. Call 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun