On Stage: A Not-So-Bookish “Mormon”

The graduating class...

The graduating class…

Book of Mormon is the ultimate oxymoron. It poses questions about many of life’s seriously important issues, but couched in a potty-mouthed musical format. A frat party of a production, this Book takes on religion, female rape and genital mutilation, African warlords and homosexuality, all without artifice or malice. And it is this honesty, even earnestness, that makes it the funniest thing to hit the stage, well, maybe ever.

In the spirit of transparency, I never was compelled to watch television’s South Park, the wildly popular brainchild of Trey Parker (Co-Director, Book, Music, Lyrics) and Matt Stone (Book, Music, Lyrics). Just too obvious.

However, I loved the Muppet-inspired Avenue Q, a Broadway-sized Sesame Street for grown-ups. Obviously co-creator Robert Lopez added something to this mix (also credited for Book, Music and Lyrics). And Casey Nicholaw (Co-Director and Choreographer) brought something from his choreographic parody in The Drowsy Chaperone and Monty Python’s Spamalot.

First impressions..

First impressions..

I would have loved to be in on their meetings, probably an academic fraternity where ideas bounced around like ping pong balls.

But to get back on track, I also was never a real fan of Broadway icon Mel Brooks (although I enjoyed The Producers), who probably provided a springboard for the over-the-top style found in Book of Mormon. However, this musical takes the obvious and makes it outrageously sophisticated, arming it with mile-a-minute, jaw-dropping (for their audacity) gags.

That all fits in with the sass that New York City offers. But would it play in Pittsburgh? Apparently so, judging from the vociferous reaction from Wednesday night’s crowd at the Benedum Center. While it may have shocked some, it had a brazen attraction to most others, enough to make the man in front of me repeatedly shake his head…with a big grin on his face.

Elder Cunningham's dazzling new book interpretation...

Elder Cunningham’s dazzling new book interpretation…

Upon closer inspection, Book of Mormon is a deliciously farcical paean to traditional musicals, where the leading characters are sent off to a foreign land, setting off a myriad of problems, some culturally-biased production numbers and a happy ending.

Just call this one fine mess of a story, where two young Mormon “elders” are sent off to Uganda, finding themselves most certainly at risk in a remote village where the inhabitants lead a fearful and gloomy life.

There Elder Price (Mark Evans, the straight man in the vein of a partially subdued Jim Carrey) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill, a comic sidekick much like Jack Black et. al.) meet their gaggle of veteran elders and break into a bona fide tap number a la Anything Goes.

That’s when you got it — that everything would be on the table, er, stage.

Elder Price tells the General how "I Believe"...

Elder Price tells the General how “I Believe”…

Most of the other staging/choreography came from a mixture of moves culled from groups like the Pips, with an updated locking and popping flavuh. Then there was the Susan Stroman-esque production number that included Disneyland and Jeffrey Dahmer, Star Wars and Starbucks…and baton twirling.

And, shades of Jerome Robbins’ pristine The Small House of Uncle Thomas,  from The King and I, the villagers presented their chaotic version of the real Book of Mormon, as interpreted to them by Elder Cunningham.

The ending itself came in several waves, much like the tidal force of the jokes that had gone before it. By then, after a record number of personal belly laughs, I, too, believed that audiences could see a musical about religion (with Radio City Musical Hall lighting and design) and walk away with their own beliefs intact.

 

 

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