Another irreverent blast from 'Mormon' in Baltimore

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The second coming of "The Book of Mormon" to Baltimore lives up to the first.

It's back, as irreverent as ever.

If you weren't converted the first time "The Book of Mormon" hit the Hippodrome a couple of years ago, the high-octane production now in town just might win you over. And confirmed fans, the kind who can recite chapter and verse of the blissfully in-your-face musical from the creators of "South Park," should find plenty to enjoy in this second coming.

It's still not for every taste, to be sure, given that the writers — Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone — leave no vulgar thought unexplored. Many a moment in this show resets the boundaries of political incorrectness.

And yet there's charm — yes, charm — beneath the wild and crazy tale of two young Mormons sent by what one of them calls "Mission Control" to a poor patch of Uganda to spread the word of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

Just as "The Book of Mormon" relies wonderfully on vintage Broadway musical devices at almost every turn, it also reveals good old-fashioned faith in such values as friendship, trust and optimism. That sentiment seems especially pronounced in the current tour.

Of course, for big Broadway hits these days, the object is to maintain the style and feel of the original version year after year, tour after tour. There's only so much individuality that will ever peek through. Still, the amiable cast here asserts itself nicely within those restrictions, demonstrating a flair for conveying some real heart beneath all the outrageous goings-on.

Take the slowly blossoming bromance between that unlikely pair of missionaries, Elder Price (David Larsen) and Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand). The actors succeed at making the bond mean something, even as funny stuff keeps erupting around them.

Likewise, Strand, whose voice is a little marvel of tonal gradations, finds the sweet spot in Elder Cunningham's tongue-tied crush on the Ugandan Nabulungi, played with an affecting warmth by Candace Quarrels. The two prove particularly endearing in the double-entendre-splashed baptism scene.

When, after the culture clash of Act 2 upsets everything and everybody, Nabulungi tells Elder Cunningham, "You have crushed my soul," Quarrels suddenly cuts right through the satire to touch a real nerve. She's an impressively nuanced singer, as well.

Note, too, the way James Vincent Meredith deftly taps into the fear beneath the nonchalance in Nabulungi's father, Mafala. It's the acting that helps freshen and, in a way, deepen the material.

That's what Larsen does in the pivotal scene when Elder Price shakes off his doubts and taps into his inner Brigham Young.

His delivery of the anthem "I Believe" hits home. The zingers still click ("I believe that Jews built boats and sailed to America … That in 1978 God changed his mind about black people"), but Larsen also makes sure you actually get why Elder Price is "a Mormon, dang it, and a Mormon just believes."

None of this is to say that musical has suddenly turned profound. Just that the salty-sweet balance of this show has been effectively underlined here.

The production gets additional lift from Daxton Bloomquist, who uncorks the inner self of long-repressed Elder McKinley with abundant snap. And David Aron Damane fills out every inch of the hideous warlord with a name unprintable in this newspaper.

The ensemble jumps into Casey Nicholaw's inventive choreography in well-disciplined form. The clever songs, supported by a tight ensemble in the pit, continue to wiggle comfortably into the ear. And Scott Pask's set design once again impresses and amuses. All in all, this "Mormon" manifestation serves the brand with conviction.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"The Book of Mormon" runs through Nov. 15 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $45.25 to $170.25. Call 800-982-2787, or go to baltimorehippodrome.com.

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