Have you seen The Book of Mormon? Share your thoughts on the show in the comments section below.
Matt Parker and Trey Stone were preparing their marionette comedy Team America: World Police in 2003 when producer Scott Rudin told them to check out the hit Broadway show – which also featured puppets – Avenue Q. They were struck by the show’s inventiveness because it was something they had always wanted to do. The show’s creators, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, saw them in the audience and introduced themselves, telling the pair that South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut was their inspiration for Avenue Q. The four went out for drinks and discovered they all had wanted to do a musical about Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormons.
And The Book of Mormon was born. Of course it took years of development, writing, composing and workshops, but in 2011 the show premiered on Broadway and became an instant sensation, winning nine Tony Awards including Best Musical. But many have wondered if the story’s subject matter would be offensive not only to the Mormons, but to people of faith in general.
It could be, if you really don’t have a sense of humor and fail to see the show’s message. The plot is fairly simple: a group of young Mormons have completed their training to become Elders, and are assigned a partner and a destination to which they will become missionaries. Elder Price has been praying to be sent to Orlando, but instead ends up with the bizarre Elder Cunningham and a two-year stay in Uganda.
Cunningham, in his simple-minded way, is thrilled to have a new best friend and doesn’t see Uganda as such a bad place to be stationed. Price tries to find a silver lining in his position, but ultimately bails on his mission and his partner after the villagers show no interest in their God, and when a local warlord threatens to kill the villagers. Cunningham takes matters into his own hands to show the villagers the way in the hopes of baptizing them into the Church. His success brings the Church leaders to the village where they discover Cunningham has brought these people to the Church in a most unorthodox way, promptly shutting down the mission and sending everyone home as failures. But there’s something about Cunningham’s innocent, bubbly personality that may just make his brothers see a different light.
The Book of Mormon definitely pokes fun at some of the goofier tenets of the Mormon religion, like Joseph Smith finding golden plates buried under a tree on his farm in upstate New York that only he was allowed to see (so he had to write everything down on paper) that told him to gather the people and take them to the promised land of Salt Lake City, but there are some little digs at Christianity and Judaism as well. But nothing harsh, really … except for maybe one song sung by the African villagers, “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which I will refrain from translating here.
But other than that, the show is really more about having faith and actually believing in there being something better than what you might have, helping you to become a better person in the process regardless of whatever religious mumbo-jumbo it’s couched in. The Book of Mormon is a show that will have you laughing out loud at the totally “so wrong” humor, but will reveal an ultimately uplifting message by the final number.
The Book of Mormon is currently touring the country with dates scheduled through June 2016 with two separate companies. The second company is currently in Baltimore at the Hippodrome Theatre through November 15 (the first company is currently in Tempe, AZ through November 8). The second company stars David Larsen as Elder Price and Cody Jamison Strand as Elder Cunningham. Larson has the harder role to play because Price is a bit self-centered, but he tries to be a good friend to Cunningham. When he deserts him, though, it’s going to take a lot for him to win us back but Larsen manages to pull off that trick. Larsen has a strong voice and a good stage presence, but he’s got the thankless task of competing with Strand, who basically steals the entire show.
Strand’s Cunningham would be the result of some kind of Frankensteinian DNA mixture of Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett and Lou Costello. If you’re familiar with any of those comic greats, you will see – and hear – a lot of them in Strand’s performance. His slightly off-balance character is almost off-putting at first, and you wonder if you really want to spend the next two hours with him, but Strand imbues his brashness with childlike wonder, turning into a wounded puppy when Price leaves him, but then gathers his wits and takes control of the situation and his life. You really root for him to succeed in the end, and that’s all thanks to the great writing and Strand’s winning performance.
The rest of the cast is universally terrific from Candace Quarrels as Nabulungi (whom Cunningham hilariously refers to as Neosporin, Nivea, Notorious B.I.G. and other names throughout the show as he really can’t remember or pronounce her real name) to Daxton Bloomquist, a stand-out as Elder McKinley, the closeted gay missionary who gets one of the show’s big musical numbers, “Turn It Off,” which addresses how the Mormons are meant to deal with any bad feelings they may have (and includes an amazing costume change that happens in almost a split second when they “clap off” the lights).
And speaking of musical numbers, the show has several that are true showstoppers, right from the beginning with the “Hello” opener. Act I also has the aforementioned “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” plus “All American Prophet” and the closer “Man Up,” while Act II starts off with “Making Things Up Again” (which features Star Trek‘s Lt. Uhura, Hobbits, an altered Darth Vader, for copyright reasons, and Yoda) the hilariously surreal “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” (which features a prancing Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran), and “Joseph Smith American Moses,” the Ugandans’ presentation for the Church leaders of the story as told to them by Cunningham. Honestly, every song in the show is a gem but the big ones really bring down the house. And if you know anything about American musicals, you will find the inspiration for these numbers in Rodgers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim (I felt a solo by Nabulungi also referenced “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors).
The really amazing thing about The Book of Mormon is the grandness of the production. If you like big Broadway musicals with massive sets and multiple set changes, flashy lighting and sound design, costumes, and energetic choreography, then this is the show to see. I was so impressed with the major set changes from an airport setting in Utah to a village in Uganda in the blink of an eye. Then we go from Uganda to Hell and back to Uganda without missing a beat and the cast changing into different costumes just as fast (and while it’s all done in the grandest of Broadway traditions, it seems that they’re also poking fun at these types of huge Broadway shows at the same time).
If you think you can handle the broad, off-color, sometimes obscene humor and love a big Broadway musical, then you must seek out The Book of Mormon when it comes to your town or a town near you. You can find information about the tour on the show’s official website.