It’s impossible to say if the Church of Latter Day Saints got any converts during last night’s opening performance of “The Book of Mormon.” But it’s safe to say many in the audience left as true believers – in the Broadway musical.
The national touring show of the New York hit is at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre for a run through Jan. 20. It’s as blasphemous as it hilarious.
The show opens with a recorded voice over delivered by the show’s creators – Matt Stone and Trey Parker – with their distinctive “South Park” inflections. They voice Jesus (“Ahh am Jesus you guys”) who wears Vegas infused robes and the angel Moroni. The Mormon creation story is told in bullet points and without irony – making it seem utterly ridiculous.
And thus the die is cast.
Soon we’re with neatly groomed Mormon elders (men in their late teens and early 20s) in the opening song, “Hello!” – a satire on the doorbell ringing missionaries.
As the men are about to leave on their two-year missions a woman in an African costume – as might be imagined by a six-year-old – arrives amidst light and sounds changes and performs a feverish song and dance. It’s a typical Broadway musical contrivance. Or so we think.
Stone and Parker have done an end run around the audience. It was the first of many times the rug was pulled from under my feet in the show. And I couldn’t have been happier.
The show’s two leads are played by tall and good looking Mark Evans (Elder Price) and short, chubby Christopher John O’Neill (Elder Cunningham.) Price is shallow (he wants to be sent to Orlando) and Cunningham is desperate to be liked. By anyone.
The pair contrast physically and in character – a vital component in a show filled with white shirt/black tie wearing white men of the same age.
The two soon find themselves in Uganda where they are robbed of all their possessions – and illusions. Evans nails the roll of Price. His rendition of “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” sums up his character nicely. O’Neill also turns out a fine performance as the earnest and disheveled elder who admits he’s never actually read The Book of Mormon. But O’Neill never made me a believer like Evans did.
Nevertheless, O’Neill is the comic center of the farce as he tries to teach his version of The Book of Mormon to the Ugandan villagers using a mix of “Star Wars” and J.R.R. Tolkien mythology.
O’Neill partners well with Samantha Marie Ware, a gem in her role as Nabulungli (Elder Cunningham’s constant mispronunciation of her name is a running gag.) The two master the duet “Baptize Me” which mixes sexual tension and, yes, baptism.
Ware cements her character’s gullible innocence in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” – an ode to that most Mormon of all cities.
The villagers, besieged by a warlord, AIDS and forced female circumcision, want little to do with the missionaries at first. One of the funniest moments in the musical is their song, “Hasa Diga Eebowai” which they teach to the enthusiastic missionaries. Enthusiastic, that is, until they learn what it means (let’s just say it’s a textbook definition of blasphemy.) It’s one of the most profane and joyous songs I’ve ever heard and a clear riff on the saccharin vibe of “Lion King.”
Another highlight is when the missionaries come together to sing “Turn It Off” – a how-to on ridding one’s mind of impure (think gay) and other negative thoughts. It’s a bizarre and entertaining combination of The Clapper, “Cabaret” and a guilt trip.
The show’s musical high point is “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” Elder Price, filled with guilt, dreams he’s in hell. It’s an over-the-top destination with a lot of “South Park” touches. Saddam Hussein doesn’t make an appearance but a cast of recent historical characters does. As does two dancing products from a well-known Seattle-based company. The latter elicited much laughter and clapping from the audience who clearly loved seeing their hometown hero in hell. Perhaps a certain somebody shouldn’t have sold The Sonics to Oklahoma City.
The comedic highpoint comes when the villagers, led by Nabulungli, put on a play that tells the Mormon history (as they think it is) for a visiting mission president. The president is not amused.
Finally, “I am Africa” sends up every Western stereotype of Africa – driving home the point that the entire musical, from Utah to Uganda, is parody.
The music, while entertaining, didn’t have me singing as I left the theater (probably a good thing as the lyrics might get one arrested.) Comedy is clearly what has made “The Book of Mormon” a giant hit.