There are some musicals that impress you with their stagecraft, choreography and singing abilities of its actors. The Book of Mormon, which just started its run at Winspear Opera House (playing through September 1), is not such a musical.
That’s not to say that any of those elements in the Tony Award winner are deficient in any way. But the primary goal of the production, written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), is to be funny, and, paradoxically, the hilarity the sets, dancing and songs create can overshadow the skills needed to create it.
On the surface, The Book of Mormon can seem like a screed toward the Mormon religion. It follows two young and naïve Mormon missionaries, Elder Kevin Price (Mark Evans) and Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), as they attempt to spread the word of God to Ugandan villagers.
Several of the songs take direct aim at various off-the-wall theology Mormons have taught through the years.
As they run into difficulties getting the Ugandans to buy into their proselytizing, they both have crises of faith, but in distinctly different manners.
How each of them deals with their predicaments — Kevin by spiraling downward, Arnold by reverting to lying — is the main thrust of the musical, and the source of some insanely catchy, provocative and surprisingly sweet songs.
Several of the songs, like “Turn It Off,” “All American Prophet” and “I Believe,” take direct aim at various off-the-wall theology Mormons have taught through the years. But the key to making those songs work is that they never make fun of the characters doing the singing, keeping them completely relatable.
It’s “I Believe” that drives home this point the best. It’s a last ditch effort for Elder Price to salvage the beliefs he’s held his entire life. And while the song is funny because of lines like “I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America” and “I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people,” it also tugs at the heart because of Elder Price’s earnestness.
Given its creators, it’s no surprise that the proceedings get more than a little profane, mostly from the Ugandan characters. It starts with “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a crowd-pleasing yet hate-filled song aimed at God. Then there’s the local warlord, a man who dubs himself “General Butt-fucking Naked.” “Joseph Smith American Moses,” in which the Ugandans show all that they have learned from Arnold, takes everything that came before it and turns the dial to 11.
But it’s “Baptize Me” that may be the best song in the context of the play (the opening number, “Hello,” is hands-down the most memorable). That’s because it hits the mark in terms of both sweetness and raunchiness. It’s about Arnold baptizing Nabalungi (Samantha Marie Ware), but the allusions to sex are unmistakable, especially with various intonations and dance moves.
The choreography in The Book of Mormon won’t win any awards — it was one of the few Tony Awards the musical didn’t win — but it’s clear that they’re not going for style points. Every move seems designed to elicit laughs, including numbers that contain references to classic Broadway dance moves. The character of Arnold is especially clumsy, and O’Neill is a delight to watch as he awkwardly-on-purpose stumbles, slides and grinds his way through the songs.
The sets and backdrops are equally unremarkable. Most of them are utilitarian at best, but the choreography and set-up for most scenes don’t require them to be anything more than that. I will say that the backdrops showing Salt Lake City and Orlando are great for the detailed artwork, even if they’re not actually designed to transport you to those places.
The one area where it is the equal of any other musical is in the quality of its singers. Evans and Ware both have fantastic voices, no surprise given their respective histories in the theater. O’Neill is making his professional debut in this show, and he more than holds his own.
All of this is a long-winded way to say that this version of the national tour of The Book of Mormon only builds on the reputation that the musical already had. If you already have tickets, don’t even think about not using them. If you haven’t secured any yet, do anything in your power to get some. Calling it a must-see is the understatement of the century.