Review | The Book Of Mormon: singin’ and dancin’ racism

The Orpheum, through Nov 18

Kim Exum and Conner Pierson in THE BOOK OF MORMON. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The Book Of Mormon is an energy packed and very funny show now playing at the downtown Orpheum Theatre until November 18th. Its pacing is tireless, starting at the opening song “Hello” when we meet Elder Price, (Kevin Clay) a priggish, self-satisfied member of the Church of Latter Day Saints and Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson), a clumsy, insecure youth who tends to lie his way out of uncomfortable situations. The two are being packed off to Uganda in Africa for their missionary year together.

The perfect tempo runs right up to the reprise of the same “Hello” musical number at the end of the show. In between there is a great deal of emphatic dancing and many more musical numbers. Both starring actors give fine, unabashed performances as does the rest of the cast, delivering sometimes impossible to believe lines with a likable charm. The production makes great use of the Orpheum’s generous fly loft with drops and set pieces galore. While the show’s songs lack memorability and the drum sectiond accompaniment is often annoying, the evening moves along at a spritely pace. This is a blessing for audience members who don’t want to have to think too much about what they are being offered in this Broadway musical developed and written by the pair who gave us South Park.

It would be naïve to expect a serious drama from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez (who did Avenue Q). They deliver a lot of the juvenile, barely-reached-manhood humor one would expect. But as the Mormons try to convert the Ugandan villagers, the Africans are portrayed with all the same traits that American prejudice employed in minstrel shows in the 19th century. The Ugandans are unintelligent, clownish, irrational, and easily duped. While they don’t know a typewriter from a cell phone, they sing and dance and demean themselves real good. Therein lies this show’s genius and its foundational flaw. The writers chose to pit one minority group: Mormons—who have their own history of prejudice—against another: black Africans. That leaves a wide swath of Americans with no skin in the game and no links to either group, free to yuck it up at the expense of both sides, especially the disempowered blacks.

Fun is fun and a few jokes about non-threatened ethnic groups are harmless and often quite clever. Ole and Lena anyone? But in these times of Nationalism and torch bearing KKK members demonstrating (and murdering) in public, the racism in a singin’ and dancin’ musical has to be pointed out. At the center of this musical lies a heart of darkness.

In the end, just before the reprise of “Hello,” the Mormons promise the villagers to do something good for the Ugandans. No power reversals in this show just a short cleansing shower of do-gooding as the Ugandans become door knocking Mormons. In fairness to The Book of Mormon (musical) I must state that this show has been touring for years, and it has won many Tony’s and other awards. It’s enough to want to make this reviewer want say, for a very different reason: “Hello-o.”

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