ENTERTAINMENT – ‘The Book of Mormon’ – the musical

The colorful journey of a pair of Mormon missionaries is told in the zesty, shocking Book of Mormon, the musical.

The colorful journey of a pair of Mormon missionaries is told in the zesty, shocking Book of Mormon, the musical.

cathleenNormanIts third time through Denver, The Book of Mormon is still packing the house, after record-breaking engagements in 2012 and 2013. The “funniest musical of all time” was written by Trey Parker, Bobby Lopez and Matt Stone. It debuted in 2011 and won nine Tony awards as well as a Grammy. Parker and Stone, who met in a film class at the University of Colorado, are the creators of the audacious, vile cartoon television show South Park that debuted in 1997. Bobby Lopez wrote the music for the amazingly popular cartoon-story, Frozen.

What type of a spin will the South Park creators put on this topic? How will they portray the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, the mysterious religion that settled Salt Lake City just like the gold rush birthed Denver?

Most of us have indeed been visited by the pair of young Mormons at our front door, asking to share the Book of Mormon and how it can change our life. Will the musical take us for a ride? Hold onto your seats, folks!

I went to see the worldwide smash hit with my 30-year-old nephew Dylan. I knew what to expect, kind of. I had only seen one of the 257 South Park TV show episodes. But, I had seen Parker and Stone’s musical about Colorado’s Alferd Packer, Cannibal! The Musical! in 2008 at a small theater in Las Vegas, so I knew what I was in for – kind of.

The Book of Mormon starts right out with charismatic zesty songs. “Hello” has a clean-scrubbed crew of white-shirted, neck-tied, jubilant doorbell-ringing missionaries – singing and cavorting and leaping. “Two by Two” presents the earnest young men eagerly departing in “companion” pairs to exciting places like France and Norway and Orlando, Florida. The initial setting and backdrop are familiar – the Mormon Tabernacle and the Salt Lake City airport from whence missionaries depart for their two-year evangelizing assignment required of every Mormon male.

The scenario quickly takes a turn toward the dark side. Our hero and anti-hero are dispatched to Uganda, much to superstar Elder Price’s great disappointment. The “companion pair” is laughably mismatched: Elder Price, a gleaming over-achiever, and Elder Cunningham, a skulking lad whose wayward way with the truth creates an unlikely turn of events…

The frenzied scene of pep and gusto shifts to the dire and deadly dreariness of Uganda, as scarily but humorously depicted by Parker, Lopez and Stone. The African country and its people are so cursed by the afflictions of poverty, hunger, violence and AIDS that the natives’ ultimate motto is “Hasa Diga Eebowai” translated as “F* You God” (song and dance!). Into this dark scene plops our pair of dazzle-eyed missionaries, joining a dozen of their brethren all of them intent on converting and baptizing the locals.

Tasked with interpreting the Book of Mormon and its fantastical story to the Ugandan natives, our unlikely hero, Elder Cunningham, stray his preaching from the already hard-to-believe Book to win the natives’ interest and faith. He secures the first Ugandan convert to the Church – a peppy young woman, Nabulungi, who embraces the fantastical faith consummated in Cunningham’s first baptism (song and dance!).

The awkward but endearing Elder Cunningham converts some of the Ugandan natives to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (most commonly called the Mormon Church).  Photo courtesy of Denver Performing for the Arts Complex

The awkward but endearing Elder Cunningham converts some of the Ugandan natives to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (most commonly called the Mormon Church).
Photo courtesy of Denver Performing for the Arts Complex

A little Internet research reveals the dark depiction of Uganda is somewhat exaggerated. Although the country is wracked by AID, but 6 percent not 80 percent of the citizens are afflicted. Daily wages of $1.25 contribute to wrenching poverty and disease. Sodomy is illegal, punishable by two years in prison. This gives you the flavor of the topics portrayed by the musical in its lively, shocking, scatological style.

The darkness is lightened up with songs like, “I Believe,” which pokes fun at Mormonism but could probably apply to other religious faiths. “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” presents with verve and color the imagined fiery underground possibly imagined not just by Mormons but by maybe many of us raised in a Christian faith.

As in all good musicals, the underdog triumphs. Rather than the over-achieving Elder Price, it is awkward bumbling Elder Cunningham who steps forward to convert and baptize a number of natives, after he opts to “Man Up” (song and dance!) like Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, Elder Price attempts to convert the local despot-general resulting in disturbing consequences. Remember – brought to you by the dudes who created South Park!

When the head of the Mormon Church visits his Uganda missionaries, Cunningham’s converts prepare a campy, vampy play-within-a-play to demonstrate their version of the seemingly ridiculous beliefs they have embraced, putting an over-the-top spin on the already misinterpreted Book of Mormon and a faraway promised paradise they call “Salta Laka Citeeee.”

The musical explodes the menacing elements of a struggling third-world society into an entertaining farce that pulls from a range of American pop culture, from Star Wars complete with Darth Vader and Yoda, to pop-singer dance-king Michael Jackson.

The three creators of The Book of Mormon amply illustrate their credo that “a good musical is moving and powerful.” As you might expect, the raunchy romp delivers profanity, absurdity and nonstop shock value, bundled with maybe metaphor and meaning. Nonetheless, you wouldn’t want to take mother to this musical, but my nephew Dylan was the perfect companion.

This review won’t go into detail about many scenes, songs and jokes. I don’t want to be a spoiler, but also it’s not fit to print in a family publication. As my daughter reminded me, “Mom, it’s meant to be offensive to everybody.” And it succeeds – with gusto and flair and song and dance.

How does the Mormon Church view the religious satire? As a vehicle to engage possible converts. The Deseret News, Salt Lake City’s major Mormon newspaper, called it “profane and hysterical.” The Church ran three full-page ads in the show program encouraging, “You’ve seen the play… now read The Book.” 1. The colorful journey of a pair of Mormon missionaries is told in the zesty, shocking Book of Mormon, the musical.

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