The Book of Mormon | Fox Theatre

theat mormon_smAt its best, the show is good naturedly stupid, and at its worst, it is in even poorer taste than the rest of the Parker/Stone oeuvre.

 

 

theat mormon

I didn’t think it was possible for any show to live up to the hype that has accrued around The Book of Mormon, the hottest ticket in New York and now in the flyover cities, as well, and…I was right. It’s got some moments, nearly all of them in Act II, but I’m wondering now whether creator/composers Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone haven’t “glamored” audiences, like vampires do, into believing this is great theater. At its best, the show is good naturedly stupid, and at its worst, it is in even poorer taste than the rest of the Parker/Stone oeuvre. And you should know two things: I like South Park, especially the movie, and am nearly impossible to offend. Usually.

The plot revolves around Mormon missionaries putting in their two years of annoying people by ringing doorbells and trying to encourage them to read The Book of Mormon and become converts. This duty is usually performed after high school and before college by young men who travel in pairs wearing black pants, white shirts, and 1950s haircuts. They make Mouseketeers look depraved by comparison. We see Elder Kevin Price (Mark Evans), a lad as golden as the angel Moroni who perches on top of Mormon temples everywhere (and the proscenium arch constructed on the stage), and Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), a short, stocky schlub, bidding farewell to their families on the way to the Missionary Training Center (“Mission Control”). At the end of their training period, they are assigned to serve the church in a remote village in Uganda (Elder Price’s dearest wish to go to Orlando is shattered, the first of many disappointments in store for him).

Elder Cunningham is thrilled, however, because he now thinks he has a “best friend.” His life has so far been an unhappy one, criticized by an overbearing father and unpopular with peers. When this odd couple arrives, there are already eight other missionaries in the area (which seems odd to me, but anyway), they are expecting a visit from their bishop soon, and they have no baptisms to show for their time with the “savages.” However, that is about to change, as Elder Cunningham’s penchant for lying serves him well in adapting the Book to the concerns of the villagers—AIDS, dysentery, dictatorships, poverty, etc.—because he has never read it. His improvisations bring the “fun” to “fundamentalism.”

We are given a brief history lesson at the top of both acts, involving Jesus’s trip to America during his downtime in the tomb between the crucifixion and the resurrection, and his gift of the golden tablets to a man named Mormon (Jeffrey David Sears). Mormon was a member of one of the two tribes of Israel who managed to get to North America by boat in the pre-Christian era. (I know, right?) Anyway, he charges his son, Moroni (Grey Henson), to bury the tablets after Mormon has written down what’s on them, per Jesus’s instructions. In the 1820s, Joseph Smith (Mike McGowan) found the tablets, and built a religion on their precepts: The Church of Latter Day Saints, i.e., Mormons, after Moroni’s dad. Smith and his eventual followers went west to escape persecution and because their book directed it, but Smith was murdered and Brigham Young took over. Oddly, the most controversial chapter of Mormon history, polygamy, is never addressed.

So this is the tale the missionaries are spinning. Here is a land where females are “circumcised” (their clitorises are removed so they cannot experience sexual pleasure and won’t be tempted to stray from their husbands) and the people are living under a dictator who goes by the name “General Butt-F*cking Naked” (Derrick Williams). I believe that appellation needs no further explanation as to its meaning, but it points toward an ethos that informs much of the whole show. These people are so terrified of getting AIDS that they commit unspeakable acts to avoid it (this was the part in which I really was offended, so score one for Parker and Stone), they drink contaminated water, and life is just really a drag, so it’s no surprise they aren’t receptive to the Mormon message. Until Elder Cunningham comes along, that is.

There is, of course, a really cute girl, daughter of the village chief, named Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware) whose name Cunningham never gets right. He calls her lots of other things like Necophilia (ha ha) and Nala (’cause there are about a million “Lion King” references, starting back home at the airport). In fact, there are a lot of ham-handed inside jokes about other musicals, all of which are better than this one. My favorite (and I really did like this part, mostly) is a reenactment of the founding of Mormonism by the villagers in a hut complete with a fetish on top to represent Moroni, but the story is the gospel according to Cunningham. It is funny and is a fair shot at The King and I’s “Little House of Uncle Thomas.”

The music is unmemorable except for the opening song (later reprised by the converts) “Hello,” which describes the missionaries’ work, and a near-profound “I Believe” by Elder Price, alone on stage in fine voice in which he reveals himself and his life in a way the rest of the show fails to do. The Mormon Church has taken out good-natured Playbill ads about reading the actual Book of Mormon, which is genius, if you ask me. Rather than being offended, they’re looking at this as a way to ring millions of virtual doorbells.

And, really, there is no reason they should be pissed off because, while these characters are Mormons doing a Mormon thing, they could easily be fundamentalist Baptists or Catholics, or any Christian sect which asks its adherents to believe far-fetched stuff like golden tablets and virgin births and walking on water and changing a few fish into creels full, and—well, you get the picture.

As always, production values are high. It’s a good set, the lighting is dazzling, the musicians in tune, and the participants talented. However, the show itself is ridiculous, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I know The Book of Mormon is critic-proof, and you’re going and you already have your tickets and whatnot, but if you’re skipping it, you won’t have missed anything at all. And yes, I realize it has Tony Awards, but for the love of Osmond, I cannot figure out why. | Andrea Braun

The Book of Mormon is at the Fox Theatre through March 3, 2013.

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