Humor, unlike music, isn't a universal language. I mention this up front for the benefit of anyone who cannot find anything funny in religion, poverty, disease, genital mutilation or various other things targeted in "The Book of Mormon," the mega-musical that has hit Baltimore full-force for a two-week engagement at the Hippodrome.
This show boldly takes the venerable Broadway art form of the musical comedy where no one would dare go before. But then, you wouldn't expect anything less from the triumvirate responsible: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the equal-opportunity offenders who put "South Park" on the small and large screen; and Robert Lopez, co-creator of the irreverent "Avenue Q."
These three guys found in the history, beliefs and practices of Mormonism more than enough material for a full-fledged theatrical venture.
The plot centers on two young, mismatched missionaries — called "elders" — who are sent to a bleak spot in Uganda. This result is cataclysmic culture shock, not to mention crises of faith, journeys of self-realization, and deep analysis of the crucial theological principles espoused by Joseph Smith when he founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
To take any part of this musical too seriously is a big mistake. "The Book of Mormon" toys with your sense of propriety, plays with your expectations and threatens your comfort zone as it deconstructs everything in its path.
We're talking subversion here, not high art. We're talking heavyweight satire and some of the crudest, rudest stuff ever to be paired with song and dance.
You think you've ever acted irreverently? You don't know from blasphemy till you start tapping your toes to "Hasa Diga Eebowai," the rouser sung by Ugandan villagers in Act I. You think you've had nightmares? Wait till you see "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," the big Act II production number.
You either willingly go along for the ride, laughing most of the time (even at the most sophomoric lines and sight gags — and there are quite a number of those), or squirm and blush your way through the show, longing for a latter day.
One thing is certain: You will not end up feeling neutral.
The brilliance of it all is that, while poking fun, pulling legs and pushing envelopes, Parker, Lopez and Stone also generate good old-fashioned entertainment. The work follows many a vintage musical in terms of layout, right down to unleashing a corps of tap dancers to cheer someone up.
When things are at their rawest and edgiest, in scenes of downtrodden and seemingly gullible Ugandans, you may well think you've stumbled into the most racially insensitive material since the hideous era of minstrel shows. But even here, "Mormon" is teasing and twisting.
Nothing is quite what it seems. Perspectives, along with affections, keep shifting. You end up feeling as off-center as the two would-be Mormon heroes naively seeking converts to baptize in a world of warlords, pestilence and fear. (Given events in Uganda lately, this grittier stuff in the show suddenly feels more telling and unnerving.)
The national touring production of "The Book of Mormon" is as tight and talent-full as the one I saw on Broadway. Directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw (the latter also devised the exuberant choreography), the cast puts an air of spontaneity into everything. Nothing feels slick or regimented.
That's especially true of Christopher John O'Neill as the endearingly goofy Elder Cunningham, who just wants a best buddy and is so sure he has found one when Mormon officials pair him with top-of-the-class Elder Price (Mark Evans).
This tour marks O'Neill's professional debut and, as he demonstrated when "Mormon" played the Kennedy Center last summer, he is a natural, the real deal. With disarming giggles and wiggles, and a particularly neat way of delivering asides in a high-pitched squeak, he gives Elder Cunningham all sorts of color.
In Washington, the actor sang the, um, heck out of "Man Up," the hilarious what-did-Jesus-do number. He was a few watts short of that intensity the night I attended at the Hippodrome (he sounded as though he was fighting a cold), but still had a terrific romp through the material.
Evans nails the determinedly sunny disposition of Elder Price in the early scenes and, with a finely expressive face, communicates each subsequent tremor in this eager missionary's rock-solid faith. The Welsh actor (he sports a flawless American accent) is also a vibrant singer, with more than enough spark for the uber-anthem "I Believe."
Alexandra Ncube is quite the charmer as the vulnerable villager Nabulungi, whose face lights up at the thought of a magical Mormon Eden called "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," and who captures Cunningham's eye. (O'Neill makes the most of a recurring bit about the Elder's inability to master the name "Nabulungi.")
Grey Henson is a hoot as Elder McKinley, a missionary who has figured out the secret of jettisoning un-Mormon thoughts but is ever in danger of forgetting. Stanley Wayne Mathis does vibrant work as Nabulungi's father. And Corey Jones menaces effectively as a warlord who likes to do his slaughtering in the nude (there was an all-too-real version of this thug in Africa just a couple of decades ago).
The rest of the polished ensemble has flair to spare. Music director Justin Mendoza conducts a small band that gives the clever songs a hearty push.
Imaginative, smoothly gliding sets (Scott Pask), spot-on costumes (Ann Roth) and masterful lighting (Brian MacDevitt) provide abundant visual flourishes.
Religions have long been ripe for ribbing; few have been spared. "The Book of Mormon" manages to skewer its target in a way that is wicked and funny and kind of sweet, all at the same time. If there are no sacred cows standing at the end of this maniacal musical, the audience invariably is.
"The Book of Mormon" runs through March 9 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30 to $180 (plus service fees). A lottery drawing for a limited number of $25 tickets will be held two hours before each performance. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.