About a week or so ago I shared an essay about why I was looking forward to seeing the touring cast in Book of Mormon on my pal John DeMers' Houston ArtsWeek blog. It was personal, reminding me of a time and place in my life that was deeply influential.
The Book of Mormon First National Tour Company
(c) Joan Marcus, 2013
(c) Joan Marcus, 2013
And now, having seen Book of Mormon, I can offer this: it's really not for everyone, which says much more about "everyone" than the show. If you can't handle vulgarity, the insulting of religion and tremendous profanity, this is not your show. Because, after all, coming from the creative minds of Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, what else would you expect?
Well, sincerity, for one. Amid all the chaos and caustic comments, there's a bright, beating heart for humanity about what connects us, what we believe and what we owe each other.
It's the story of two hapless Mormon missionaries, the egotistic and idealistic Elder Kevin Price and the geeky, socially awkward Elder Arnold Cunningham who get sent to Uganda to preach the word of God as they know it and convert the population to Mormonism. Along the way, mayhem, crisis of faith and insanity ensue. Oh, and a few not-so-subtle references to The Lion King.
Elder Price, (the stunningly talented Mark Evans, who captures Price's confidence and insecurity with great charm and a fantastic set of pipes) is out to change the world and believes he's destined for greatness. Elder Cunningham, (the goofy and gregarious Christopher John O'Neill, who combines spastic and sci-fi geek into a genuinely believable performance) is prone to making things up, and just wants a friend. "I'm a follower" is his mantra. They realize almost immediately that nothing is as it seems in the Ugandan village where everyone has AIDS, where poverty is universal and an evil warlord is threatening to circumcise all the women. This is not a place that's ripe for hearing the word of God. IN fact, the villagers have a saying that pretty well sums up what they think about God, "Hasa Diga Eebowai." (I'll let you Google it; this is a family blog). But those plucky Mormons carry on, aided by the idealism of Nabulungi, a young woman in the village, portrayed with guile and glorious voice by Samantha Marie Ware. And, in the end, they find out that tomorrow really is a (latter) day.
Structurally, Book of Mormon borrows from the golden age of musicals, with homages to The Sound of Music, The King and I (Mormon's "Joseph Smith American Moses", a rip-off of The Small House of Uncle Thomas is absolutely delightful, both on its own and a tribute), with Casey Nicholaw's buoyant choreography borrowing elements of everyone from Alivin Ailey to Bob Fosse to Jerome Robbins. Eschewing the format of one big production number following another, the songs and their cheeky, clever lyrics move the story along, from the opening "Hello," in which the Mormon missionaries learn to ring doorbells and talk about how the Book of Mormon can change lives right down to the finale. The act one closer, "Man Up," is a 1980s-hair-band infused rock number that perfectly captures the crisis of the moment and how cleaving to your faith can push you to action, as well as giving a wink and a nod to Les Miserables' "One Day More.". "I Believe," Elder Price's part prayer, part self-help positive self-talk is epic for its heart and its skewering of Mormon doctrine. And "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," Nabulungi's anthem, is part "Disneyland" from the ill-fated Smile and put me in mind of "Lady's Maid" from Titanic.
The ensemble cast presents this story as, well, a mission, and there's so much joy radiating from the stage, you might wonder, as one of our theater-going party did, "Why can't all musicals be this good?"
For all its sarcasm, there's a sweetness at Book of Mormon's core that shines through as brightly as those Mormon boys' faith in their God. It's a real trick to pull it off, too, since in the hands of lesser creatives, you might wind up with just the sarcasm, which would be ugly, or only the sweetness, which would be cloying in the extreme. But, even as Book of Mormon lambasts doctrine, reinforces stereotypes and overall acts offensive, it entertains hugely and manages to show us how a little belief -- in ourselves, in a higher power, in something -- allows us to change and transform each other.
Book of Mormon plays at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway Across America through September 15.