I recently went to the Orpheum Theater's production of The Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon plays with themes from South Park their long running television series on Comedy Central; the silliness of religion, American rubes who in the end realize their way of thinking is skewed towards their small worldview, and comedy that hits home so hard that you will cringe. The Book of Mormon is not the duo's first musical production, but it is the first to win multiple Tonys.
The story follows Elder Kevin Price (Nic Rouleau), a missionary who knows that god will reward him for his steadfast faith, and Elder Arnold Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), a bumbling, lying young follower who has never even read The Book of Mormon. The mismatched duo are paired together to spread the word of god in Uganda.
The musical starts with a wonderful opening song “Hello!” The song introduces Mormonism to the audience. (I assume that most people who attend The Book of Mormon are aware of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) This number sets much of the tone for the rest of the musical. The opening scenes set up that these 'Elders' are being trained to travel the world and convert the dark skinned heathens, but these 19 year old kids, who have yet to experience life themselves, are grossly unprepared for their mission.
When the Elders reach Uganda they are greeted by Nabulungi (Syesha Mercado) who takes the Elders from the train station to their shack. It is during this time that the audience is sees the juxtaposition between the heavenly, faultless Salt Lake City, Utah (Or, as Nabulungi says, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.”) and the poor AIDS ravished village that is being tyrannized by the comically named General Butt-Fucking-Naked who is obsessed with female circumcision. (Google the real: General Butt Naked.)
It is here that the cherubim Elder Price starts to see the cracks in the church walls. His fellow missionaries have yet to convert a single person, in the hilarious song “Turn It Off,” the missionaries teach Elder Price and Elder Cunningham about their surefire method to dealing with difficult situations and 'un-godly' urges: Just turn it off like a light switch.
In the second act, Elder Price runs away from the daunting task that he feels that he does not deserve. Elder Cunningham has committed himself to baptizing some of the natives, before the Mission President comes to evaluate the completely unsuccessful mission. Elder Cunningham is so concerned with converting the villagers that he makes up his own stories about Joseph Smith.
Elder Cunningham, a good natured yet unprepared and undereducated trope of Joe America, baptizes the whole village, but not before 'baptizing' young Nabulungi under the stars one romantic night.
Elder Price comes back to the fold after Elder Cunningham finds him swilling coffee in a local cafe. Elder Cunningham informs Elder Price that he has converted the missionaries and that Elder Price should come back to the village before the Mission President arrives to evaluate their mission.
The final half of the second act is a mix of broken promises, angels coming to Earth on the Starship Enterprise, reconciliation, excommunication, and redemption.
The Book of Mormon does a great job of laughing at the ridiculous stories and practices of Mormon people. (There is a great line in one of the songs that mentions that Black members still were not allowed into the church until the 1978.) The musical also does a good job of redeeming the two protagonists and showing that anybody can do some good in the world.
The music is outrageously funny and many of the numbers sounded like they were inspired by other musicals and pop music. Nic Rouleau blew me away from the beginning with his powerful voice. Syesha Mercado's bouncy, inquisitive, courageous portrayal of Nabulungi was a treat every time she appeared on stage. Also, Giles Terera, who played Nabulungi's father, was extremely funny. The only member of the cast that I wasn't particularly impressed with was Chris Jarman, who played the General. He seemed quiet and his energy was well below the energy of the rest of the cast.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker are the voices of a whole generation of people. With The Book of Mormon, they are speaking to a whole new audience who may never have watched an episode of South Park. The humor was crass, the script was painfully funny, and the subject matter was taboo. I heard a woman behind me after the show comment, “Wow! If Barb was here, she would have walked right out.” I would like to think that there were a few Barbs, Joes, or Ishmaels there that were shocked into enjoyment.