SALT LAKE CITY— Snark, bite, vulgarity, profanity, jaw-dropping irreverence, and extreme characterizations are all aspects fans might recognize from Trey Parker and Matt Stone‘s iconic South Park series. These are not necessarily characteristics that one would expect from an award winning and popular Broadway musical, yet these all abound in the highly anticipated and boundary pushing The Book of Mormon presented by Broadway Across America. With songs from Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, Frozen), Parker and Stone’s “nothing is sacred” satirical style mixes so effectively with the traditional form of the American musical that it almost reinvents itself. I didn’t know much about this musical going in. I knew a couple of songs and that it was about Mormons and that those South Park guys regularly obliterate boundaries of good taste. I’m not easily offended and I still went in with my guard up. While the content is controversial, I was blown away by the sophistication and cleverness of how the script and characters actively address hot-button topics like poverty, disease, female genital mutilation, political instability, violence, white privilege, gender and identity, and religion using camped up comedy and tap dancing. I have never seen a piece of dramatic theatre that presented as much social commentary as The Book of Mormon does. I have also never laughed that hard and that much at a performance ever.
The premise is simple: Elder Price is a fresh-faced and eager missionary with his heart set on a mission call to Orlando and achieving incredible things. Price (played by Billy Harrigan Tighe) is a shining example of all things a missionary should be. He practically gleams with promise and aptitude. When Price is paired with Elder Cunningham, a less than ideal companion, and the two are sent to Uganda, everything that Elder Price believes is challenged in the most delightful and offensive of ways. Sure, we all know that isn’t how Mission Calls work, but it doesn’t matter. The elders are off on a journey that change both their lives, just not in the way they expected.
A.J. Holmes as Elder Cunningham gives a knock-out performance of a poignant character that could easily be made a shallow stereotype. Cunningham is a weird guy. He is sheltered, awkward, and more confident with fictional characters than with real people. He also lies. A lot. The counterpoint between Price’s clean-cut LDS ideal and Cunningham’s “special spirit” sets the scene for learning moments galore, but nothing can prepare them for the reality of Africa. The ramshackle village that they land in has no use for a pair of plucky do-gooders. There is no water, no hope, no treatment for disease, and a despotic warlord threatening death and genital mutilation.
The deceptively joyful refrain of “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (a phrase that turns out to be as far from “Hakuna Matata” as you can possibly get) offered by the villagers as their motto for getting through the horror of each day makes Elder Price’s lament of “why me?” completely and utterly ridiculous. And that is the point. How does one reconcile the world of the comfortable and known with the harsh reality of everyday brutality? The script doesn’t necessarily ask this question, but it definitely makes you think about stuff that might make you uncomfortable. The villagers don’t really care why the new elders are there and it turns out that the mission hasn’t been successful at all in regards to baptisms. How can Elder Price live up to his full potential in this kind of situation? The kind of brilliant thing is that he doesn’t. He fails and forces Elder Cunningham to take up the reigns of righteousness and move from sidekick to hero. Soon, they are the most successful mission in all of Africa because of Cunningham’s colorful retellings of the origins of the church. Cue hi jinks and moral quandaries.
The touring company cast is stellar. Alexandra Ncube as Nabulungi, the spunky village maiden who dreams of salvation in the paradise of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”, is winsome and strong. Corey Jones as the booming General is imposing and gives the most perfect deadpan in response to Elder Price’s attempted ministries. Brian Beach shines as Elder McKinley, the district leader fighting same-sex attraction and striving to keep the missionaries under his care safe by learning to repress their bigger feelings and fear within them (“Turn It Off”). Other outstanding members of this incredible ensemble include Stanley Wayne Mathis, Lacretta Nicole, Zurin Villanueva, Josh Breckenridge, and Ron Bohmer.
The technical elements are also impressive. Framing the action is a false proscenium reminiscent of temple architecture, topped with a golden Moroni. Set design by Scott Pask creates each locale with comical color saturation appropriate to the campiness of the play, while the transitions are deceptively complex with scenery expanding and contracting to frame each scene. Costumes by Ann Roth play into all of the assumed expectations of a musical while still contrasting what is available in the First versus Third world. Lighting by Brian MacDevitt is at turns stark, bright, whimsical, and the perfect highlight for spectacle like the costumes in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”. The
choreography by co-director Casey Nicholaw is crisp and is unashamedly derivative of everything from Fosse to the Osmonds. That is another wonderful layer to this show- all of the homage to classic musicals. There are nods to The King and I, Hairspray, West Side Story, Damn Yankees, and most often The Lion King. This musical loves being a “musical” and openly celebrates all that that connotes.
Yes, the Book of Mormon, LDS culture, and religion in general get a savage lampooning complete with fairly sacrilegious portrayals of Jesus and the Angel Moroni, yet this parody is never malicious. It is raunchy, offensive, shocking and salacious but never mean-spirited. There is more than a little uncomfortable accuracy in the songs that ring doubly true here in Utah. We probably laugh harder than other cities because of the extreme truth we see. If you are offended, it is because that is what the play is meant to do, but it also has heart. So much heart and empathy for its subject that when the surprisingly light denouement happens you don’t want to say goodbye. Through all the mocking and profanity, we are left with the message that what you believe doesn’t matter as much as having belief in something and using that belief to do good.