After a Mormon family moved in across the street from me many years ago, I became accustomed to finding smiling, neatly pressed and overly friendly pairs of handsome young men at my door offering to introduce me to Jesus Christ. I knew little about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints other than what I’d heard or read in the media, but I always politely declined their invitation. Little did I know I’d eventually learn quite a bit about their faith from a rather unlikely source – the smash-hit Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” that seemed to turn even the most skeptical patron into a fan following the official opening night performance at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre.
The production is the brainchild of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone – two of whom (Parker and Stone) are the creators of the long-running “South Park” on Comedy Central. For those of us familiar with Stan, Kyle, Eric and Kenny, it comes as no surprise that “The Book of Mormon” is a scathing satire about blindly following religious dogma. Others, however – such as the few souls with scowls on their faces I observed at intermission – are likely stunned by the irreverent plot, the vulgar lyrics and a character’s name I wouldn’t dare print in full. (Let’s just say “The Book of Mormon” wouldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes had it premiered on Broadway throughout much of the 20th century; the cops would have shut it down. But in the more enlightened 21st century, the 2011 musical earned nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. My, how times have changed!)
So why is “The Book of Mormon” so popular, you might be wondering? Because rarely does a clever, new musical hit town and fire all its cylinders so consistently and successfully as this production does – and you’ll even leave the theater humming a handful of tunes! How often does THAT happen these days?
In “The Book of Mormon,” described by co-creator Stone as “an atheist’s love letter to religion,” 19-year-old Mormons Kevin Price (Mark Evans) and Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) are given their two-year missionary assignment – and rather than being sent to Orlando as Elder Price has prayed for, the two find themselves in Uganda where a warlord (Derrick Williams) is terrorizing local villages and circumcising their women. The missionaries are a mismatch of major proportions: Elder Price is a handsome and popular overachiever with an inflated sense of self importance, while Elder Cunningham is a pudgy underachiever – “a follower,” he proudly proclaims – and a liar with no friends. As earlier-arriving missionaries have had no luck converting the villagers, Price is determined to make a name for himself – yes, himself – by converting the entire village to the church.
As Price learns the hard way, his goal is easier said than done!
What sells this show to fans and initial skeptics alike is not just the unique plot, the often-ingenious lyrics, the catchy tunes or the clever (but raw) dialogue. Or even the sets by Scott Pask or the costumes by Ann Roth, both of which are flawless. (Set and costume changes occur in a blink of an eye.)
No, what’s endearing about the show are the performances by its uniformly excellent cast.
Evans is particular sharp as the braggadocio Price. There are plenty of nuances built into his character, and he finds them all – and has plenty of fun bringing them into focus. That’s especially visible in “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” an early number in which his character becomes truly defined for the audience. And later, his “I Believe” is a showstopper.
O’Neill, often a scene stealer, warms hearts with his honest and passionate performance. His Cunningham is the underdog everyone roots for – even when his actions cause more harm than good. And that’s what Cunningham does best, as seen in the hilarious “Making Things Up” that opens Act 2 in which he gives Mormon history a twist he’ll later regret. (His voice seemed to be a little tired later in the song “Baptize Me,” but given the hectic pace he keeps throughout the show, that’s not surprising; most of us would have passed out from exhaustion more than an hour earlier.)
Another standout is Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi, a beautiful village girl who helps turn the tide for the missionaries – and then screws it up big time when the Mission President comes to view his troops’ accomplishments. Among the musical’s showstoppers – and there are a handful of them – is her number “Joseph Smith American Moses” in which she and the villagers celebrate their newfound Mormon beliefs (as they understand them) through song and dance. I suspect Joseph Smith – the religion’s founder – spins in his grave every time this scene is performed.
Then there’s Grey Henson, who plays Elder McKinley, the secretly gay missionary leader. His solution to pretending he’s not gay and that life in Uganda doesn’t suck is yet another show highlight, the first act’s “Turn It Off.”
All in all, “The Book of Mormon” is blessed with a tight-knit, energetic and highly skilled cast – and when combined with the expert work of the musicians and behind-the-scenes technical craftspeople, the result is one heck of a fine and entertaining show. But don’t let the flash and razzle-dazzle mislead you: Its message is an important one that applies to far more than just a church’s dogma – no matter how crazy-sounding it might be! (Mormons, though, might disagree with that assessment…)
‘The Book of Mormon’
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through March 24. 2 hours, 25 minutes. $49+. Contains mature themes, dialogue and lyrics. 313-872-1000. http://www.BroadwayinDetroit.com.