The Book Of Mormon at the Orpheum

February 6, 2013
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Phyre Hawkins, Mark Evans and Christopher John O'Neill in The Book Of Mormon.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Phyre Hawkins, Mark Evans and Christopher John O’Neill in The Book Of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Mormonism offers a broad-side-of-the-barn target for satirists.

Just a few historical details (I can’t help myself): in the 1830s Joseph Smith dug up (on a hill in upstate NY) a set of golden plates etched with writing (“reformed Egyptian”).  Using a “peepstone” and a hat, Smith translated the plates and the resulting Book Of Mormon deals with the struggles of the Nephites (good) with the Lamanites (bad), and Jesus’s unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a truce.  When the Nephites were, to a person, wiped out, God got really steamed and cursed the Lamanites with dark skin.  Smith handed the original plates off to an angel (Moroni).  They’re gone now.  Smith practiced what he called “plural marriage” (and what the rest of us call polygamy); Smith had 38 wives, his successor Brigham Young 54.  According to Smith, God lives on a planet called—

All right, all right, I’ll stop (I would urge you, though, to pick up a copy of Jon Krakauer’s deliciously readable Under The Banner Of Heaven).

The question is, why haven’t American playwrights had their way with this screechingly bizarre religion?  Has Mormonism been, for unknowable reasons, untouchable?  Has the fervent and avid seriousness espoused by these milquetoasty yet frenzied Utahans somehow made then immune to caricature?

No longer.  In The Book Of Mormon (at the Orpheum through Feb 17) show makers Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of the unceasingly adolescent South Park TV series) and composer Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) have fashioned a deliriously nasty send-up of contemporary Mormonism.  White beshirted/black beslacked Elders (all in their early 20s) are sent off on two year missions, where, wearing Miss America smiles, they endlessly ring doorbells, trying to get people to read Smith’s turgid The Book Of Mormon.  Their tirelessness, cheerfulness and relentless shallowness makes them screamingly, indeed, hootingly funny.  In The Book Of Mormon, our two Elder-Heroes, Price and Cunningham, are posted to, of all places, Uganda, with many comic complications ensuing therefrom.

The Book Of Mormon‘s music is grand, simple, singable, foot tapping perfection.  The first song, “Hello”, delights, a complex round of clever harmony as the grinning Elders ring doorbells and collect rejections.  Similarly wonderful is “Turn It Off,” a delightful description of how the Elders deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by poverty, hostility, homosexual desires, cancer: they turn it off.  Elder Price sings the priceless “I Believe”, a marvelous précis of strange (to put it mildly) Mormon beliefs.

The show-makers have liberally salted The Book Of Mormon with songs like this (Mormons dealing with complex social issues with comic cookie cutter simplicity), with dreams (“The Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is a hoot and then some), flashbacks to the strange founding of the religion.  Directors Casey Nicholow and Trey Parker keep the proceedings zipping along and choreographer Nicholow stages some delicious dancing, complete with hip thrusts, pumping fists and Vaudeville zeal.

Ahem.  When the action shifts to contemporary Uganda I developed, I must admit, a case of the Queasies.  The African characters suffer from endemic poverty.  From AIDs.  They have sexual intercourse (the play uses a saltier term) with babies.  And with frogs.  They sing a terrific song, “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (translation: “Fuck You, God”).  A one-eyed warlord, General Buttfucking Naked (if only I were making this up) obsesses on performing clitorectomies on innocent women.  They swallow the Mormon cant and dream of creating their own magical Salt Lake City.

Yikes.  To truly enjoy The Book Of Mormon, one has to dismiss all this as South Park-ish nonsense.  Just go with the farce.  And (perhaps this is personal weakness) I couldn’t.  As much as I enjoyed this show, I was too often swallowing down bile created by the show’s exploitation (I wish I could find a different word) of the African characters.  Enough said.

Performances are uniformly terrific.  Christopher John O’Neill as Elder Cunningham – short, portly and cuddly – plays the juiciest role in the play with gleeful and inspiring comic frenzy.  His partner, Elder Price is played with a pasted-on grin and towering ego by Mark Evans.  His “You And Me (But Mostly Me)” thrills.  As Nabulungi, Samantha Marie Ware threads a needle; she has to make stupidity compelling and this she does with aplomb.  It’s lovely work.  Mike McGowan plays Elder McKinley with zest and gusto.  “You had the Hell Dream, didn’t you.  Was I in it?”  I adored him.  All the performers are excellent.

And, man oh man, can they sing.

The Book Of Mormon is a not cheap ticket (top price is $154), but given the sky-high level of comedy and pure theatrical fun, you might find it worthwhile.  Try not to think too hard about the African characters.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

 

 

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