At the Winspear, a Perfect Book of Mormon Converts Another Cynic
It's intermission at Book of Mormon and my face feels like I fed it psychedelic mushrooms instead of dinner. I'm explaining this to the lobby bartender who asked if the show is as good as everyone says. I point to my teary eye ducts and try to push down my new plastic-y cult smile. He nods, feigning empathy for my condition: "I ate some mushrooms about an hour ago," he says, wiping off the top of my beer. "So it's cool."
As with any great drug binge, I wasn't expecting to feel quite this good for quite this long. In fact, I'd headed to Book of Mormon hoping to be let down. What? I'm bitter. Deal with it.
I expected to see something that didn't own up to the hype, leaving me to play the role of diligent martyr, writing the lone non-glowing review of this nine-time Tony-winning production. The problem with that plan is that there are no missteps. This show is perfect, and that's positively infuriating. I suspect I'd be much more upset were I not so elated.
The production opens at the Mormon mission training center where a new crew of enthusiastic young men practice pushing imaginary doorbells. Their smiles seem bigger than face physics should allow. The opening number "Hello!" has since metastasized into an unshakable earworm, an impossibly catchy anthem that reverberates through my skull.
On stage, the fellas cheerfully flaunt their tenacity. The staggered chorus steps over one another to deflect endless rejections with glee, waving well wishes as doors slam in their faces.
It's here the show's tone is set; where jokes layer contagiously upon one another and insults slide off the eager missionaries' Scotchgard exteriors. Positioned behind their joyous failure is a dreamy and weird watercolor landscape, featuring a magical castle/church and an almost glowing, hilly background. It looks to be a Salt Lake City promised land, parted in the middle by a highway, a Walmart, a McDonald's and other comically less beautiful, earthly additions.
This is also where we meet Elder Price (Mark Evans), the great white hope of this new batch. He's armed with jazzy choreography, milk-white teeth, a photographic scripture memory and posture so unattainable that you'd need spine Spanx just to mimic it. Price gets that God has a plan for him; he's just hoping said path lands him in Central Florida for his two-year mission. There's just something about Orlando, Disney's holy ground, that really speaks to him.
Also making his presence known is Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill), a real paste-eater of a sidekick. He's also a compulsive liar who lies about why he lies. Cunningham might read that book he's peddling, eventually. In the meantime, his keen ability to follow is his most treasured asset.
When the two are paired up and sent to Uganda, Cunningham is simply thrilled to be there while Price has his first taste of religious doubt. When an armed militia steals their belongings, the village they're meant to save sings "Fuck you, God" with the same cheerful cantor as the Lion King's "Hakuna Matata" and their Mormon home group informs them that nobody here's ever been baptized, Price gets another serving of it. Fortunately, his unwavering idealism and pride in self pull him from his faith lapse, and that's where Mormon's writing really shines.
The play is a raunchfest: There are maggots in a penis and female circumcision; frogs are sexed by humans; everyone's got the AIDS and people are fucking babies. But by replacing sadness with excessive pride, we get the humor that wells up from illogical situations. The show's one unselfish act, Elder Cunningham's invention of religious text designed to ease the village's pain, is the best/worst thing any character is capable of.
Adding to Mormon's greatness are the bits of stage magic summoned by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, the big ol' brains behind this, South Park and Avenue Q. Cartoon tricks, like squeezing out a character into a square of shrinking backdrop, are employed. Puppets unite personalities from Star Trek, Star Wars and hell itself on stage. The tribe's romantic lady lead Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware) moves around the boards straight-armed and quick-footed, like Starvin' Marvin's signature South Park locomotion. And catchy group tap routines (led fabulously by Grey Henson as Elder McKinley) celebrate the repression of unholy instincts.
When the curtain drops and the room is lit, you see the happiest crowd of humans ever crammed into one space, which leaves you to wonder if contemporary theater takes itself too seriously. Here you have a show about an African tribe dealing with clitoris-removal and a pair of wide-eyed missionaries, and it's perfect. Finally, you imagine Stone, Parker and Lopez, who are probably swapping fart jokes somewhere, and think: "Jeez, how many different methods of storytelling these guys are good at?"
Obnoxiously, the answer is "all of them."
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