If performance energy were radioactive, the folks in the first several rows at Heinz Hall watching The Book of Mormon probably discovered they were glowing in the dark when they got home.
This 2011 show is, on one level, about the inexorable – not to say relentless – optimism and good cheer so admired by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Driving that point home book, music and lyrics writers Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone place two numbers back to back at the beginning “Hello” and “Two by Two” that are so high energy you’re exhausted before they’re over.
The Book of Mormon continues through April 21 at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Downtown. 412/392-4900. www.trustarts.org
But the guys don’t stop there – the sheer drive of the music continues throughout and under the direction of Parker and Casey Nicholaw, along with Nicholaw’s outrageously funny choreography, almost every number is turned into a showstopper. It’s a good thing the bulk of this perfectly talented cast is very, very young … otherwise the producers of this national tour would just be carting corpses from city to city.
Mormon, still a massive B’way hit, belongs to the genre, like Spamalot and The Producers before it and Hamilton after it, of musicals for people who would never go to a musical. Parker and Stone, of course, are the creators of South Park so prospective customers could be sure that, at the very least, Mormon isn’t one of those musicals where the boy and girl spend two acts singing about love instead of having sex.
It’s about two young Mormon men just finishing up training for their compulsory two-year missionary work. Elder Price is the golden boy of his family, community and church. The plans everyone has for this exemplary young man are almost as big as the ones he has for himself. Problems arise when he is paired with Elder Cunningham, a rumpled, goofy, friendless nerd.
Liam Tobin plays Price’s almost-warlike exuberance full out and uses his clarion voice to enormous effect on the power ballads he plows through, with “I Believe” being a highlight.Jordan Matthew Brown give the nebbishy Cunningham a funny, churning, jammed up internal struggle, like a 9 year old who needs to pee in the next three minutes or there’s going to be big trouble. These two men play together seamlessly.
The plot thickens when the pair is sent, not to Price’s dream destination Orlando, but a village in Uganda. Price and Cunningham have never lived outside of Utah and now find themselves in a place where 80 percent of the population has HIV/AIDS and a neighboring warlord is genitally mutilating women. It’s immediately clear that nothing in their past or in their church has readied them to confront real life. Andy Huntington Jones plays Elder McKinley, a missionary who brings down the house with his number “Turn it Off” explaining how a Mormon can navigate a hostile world.
Kayla Pecchioni is funny and charming as a Ugandan with a secret plan to get herself and her friends out of this hellhole and Jacques C. Smith gets a chance to shine on the numbers set in the village.
Lots to like here, but I do find Book of Mormon a bit coy, then smug about that coyness. It gets a plenty of comedic mileage out of religious loopiness but then, at the end, inoculates itself with bumper sticker homilies on faith. I also wonder if people would be having such a ball were Mormon lampooning a belief system other than Mormonism. It’s dead simple making fun of Joseph Smith digging up golden plates in his backyard placed there by an angel, but how about mocking Moses and his stone tablets or Jesus waking up a dead guy? Trust me, I’m not a Mormon fan (I feel about them the way they feel about me) but it’s no more ridiculous than any other religion.
Speaking of jokes; Considering the creators, I’d expect Mormon to be funnier than it is. There’s plenty of gags, but none really surprise. All in all it’s just a fish-out-of-water comedy. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s curious Parker and Stone would write something so standard.
Well … maybe not completely standard. I suppose I should give you this consumer warning: The language is what some would call extremely offensive. And I’m not kidding – whatever you’re thinking, it’s about five times more brutal. That might not matter to you but some don’t like the “f” word and the “c” word, especially used in a religious context — and if that’s you, you may want to rethink your plans.
But for the rest of us, The Book of Mormon has a lot to offer and they’re offering it, like in Spinal Tap, at 11.