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Blockbuster hit 'The Book of Mormon' shocks, offends, delights and entertains

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Joan Marcus
The cast of the first national touring company of 'The Book of Mormon.'
Joan Marcus
Mark Evans in 'The Book of Mormon.'
Joan Marcus
(From left) Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad perform in ‘The Book of Mormon.’
Mark Evans and Derrick Williams in the first national tour of 'The Book of Mormon.'
Joan Marcus
A scene from the first national tour of 'The Book of Mormon.'
Samantha Marie Ware plays Nabulungi in the first national tour of 'The Book of Mormon.'
Actors Rory O'Malley, right, and Josh Gad from 'The Book of Mormon' pose for a portrait in New York, Tuesday, May 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

Buckle up for a tumultuous ride.

The musical “The Book of Mormon” arrives March 26 at the Benedum Center with dueling distinctions of popular acclaim and notoriety.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the irreverent and anarchic geniuses who gave birth to television's “South Park,” created the musical in collaboration with Robert Lopez, whose “Avenue Q” offered a witty, satirical and outrageously funny Broadway musical about the private lives of some very adult puppets.

The result of that collaborative collision, “The Book of Mormon,” pokes fun at religious beliefs and cultural misunderstandings and assumptions in its tales of two 19-year-old Mormon missionaries dispatched to bring their brand of religion to a war-torn village in Uganda.

Elder Prince and Elder McKinley quickly find themselves in over their heads when they're confronted by people looking not for salvation but solutions to problems that include warlords, rape, contaminated water, exotic diseases and physical mutilation.

The musical's R-rated songs and dialogue contain words and situations that will almost certainly astound or shock even the hardiest of theatergoers.

But you'd expect that from a creative team whose earlier boundary-pushing ventures included a movie titled “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” (Parker and Stone) or songs titled “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is for Porn” (Lopez).

It's a musical comedy that won nine Tony Awards, including best musical, best score and best book, and continues to play to standing-room-only houses on Broadway.

Most theater critics left “The Book of Mormon” cheering.

New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley called it “a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical … Its heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show.”

The national tour has broken box-office records at theaters around the country and prompted some presenters to institute selective sales restrictions.

When tickets went on sale Feb. 19 in Toronto, non-Canadians were barred from purchasing tickets for the six-week run, in part to insure ticket availability to local residents. The ban was rescinded two days later when only a few single seats remained available.

“We actually crashed three (box-office) websites, most recently in D.C. and Denver,” says Samantha Marie Ware, who plays Nabulungi in the national tour.

Pittsburgh-area subscribers and ticket buyers have claimed most of the seats for the show's two-week run here.

“We expected sales to be robust in Pittsburgh for ‘The Book of Mormon,' “ says Marc Fleming, vice president of marketing and communications for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which manages the PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh series. “We set our internal goals higher … and we have exceeded our internal expectations. We have had high demand for tickets overall, and among subscribers, we've had more purchasing additional tickets than swapping out for another show.”

For Ware, playing Nabulungi in “The Book of Mormon” is very different from what she experienced as Nala in Disney's family-friendly musical “The Lion King.”

The characters of Nabulungi and Nala are both smart, strong, young women. But the material and audience reactions are a bit of an adjustment, Ware says.

Ever since previews began on Broadway, audience-watching has been an interesting activity for performers, she says.

Soon after the performance begins, Ware often sees people with “dropped jaws, sullen faces, people laughing or not wanting to laugh but laughing anyway,” she says.

Reactions among members of her own family varied, she says. Her parents loved the show when they saw Ware do Nabulungi as a replacement performer in the Broadway production. Her grandmother and aunt said they enjoyed it, but didn't want to see it again. Her 13-year-old brother didn't get it, she says.

Some of the show's messages may be hard to take, especially those involving the very real instances of violence, chaos and poverty the Ugandans experience.

As the show progresses, some offended people may leave. But most stay, and as the show develops, the laughter increases.

By the end of the show, people stand up and clap because they are able to process what's happening, Ware says.

“It's really a great show because, at the end, everyone can take away something,” Ware says. “If you get ‘South Park,' you will get this.”

Elder Price's line just before the musical's final song sums up what Ware believes is the show's message:

“Even if we change some things, or break the rules, or have complete doubt that God exists … we can still work together to make this our paradise planet.”

About the real book

Mormons, officially known as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believe the Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ and a scripture like the Holy Bible.

The Book of Mormon is a record of ancient people descended from a prophet that God sent from Jerusalem around 600 B.C. to settle in North America. A millennium later, Mormon, who was a keeper of the scriptures and records, wrote them on golden plates.

Mormon gave the golden plates to his son, Moroni, who added some of his own words and then buried them in the ground in New York state where they stayed for about 1,400 years.

In 1823, Moroni, now an angelic messenger, visited Joseph Smith in his sleep and told him about the record and that Smith would have a role to play in bringing it to light. In 1827, Smith discovered the golden plates buried in his backyard and received the ability to translate them into English.

Most of the text that makes up the doctrine and covenants is God's answers to Smith's prayers and questions. Among the book's most important passages are those about the visit of the resurrected Jesus Christ to the ancient Americans.

Smith formally organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830.

Early Mormons endured persecution that caused them to move often.

Following Smith's death in 1844, Brigham Young succeeded him as the second prophet and president of the church. Young eventually led his followers west where they established their home in what became Salt Lake City, Utah.

Pittsburgh connection

Josh Gad (left) and Rory O'Malley, who created the roles of Elder Cunningham and Elder McKinley for the original Broadway production of “The Book of Mormon,” were college roommates at Carnegie Mellon University. They graduated in 2003. Both O'Malley and Gad received Tony nominations for their performances.

Grey Henson, a 2012 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, now plays Elder McKinley in the national touring production that's playing here.

Mormon Church on ‘The Book of Mormon'

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a formal statement soon after the debut of the Broadway musical:

“The production may attempt to entertain audiences of an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

Instead of threatening lawsuits, expressing outrage or recruiting pickets, the Salt Lake City-based church has placed three full-page ads in Playbills distributed at “The Book of Mormon” performances in Chicago and other markets, including Pittsburgh.

The ads on three consecutive pages each feature a different person and message: a Caucasian male and the message “I've Read the Book”; a Caucasian female and “The Book Is Always Better”; and a Black male and “You've Seen the Play … Now Read the Book.”

In addition, a QR scan code and the link to the website appears on each page to learn more about the Mormon religion or request a free copy of the real Book of Mormon.

Famous Mormons

Mitt Romney: 2012 Republican presidential candidate

Gladys Knight: R&B star, a 1997 convert

Stephenie Meyer: “Twilight” novelist

John Huntsman: Unsuccessful candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination

Donny and Marie Osmond: Brother and sister entertainment duo, along with the rest of their family

Harry Reid: U.S. Senate majority leader from Nevada

J. Willard Marriott: Hotel magnate

Katherine Heigl: Actress, “One for the Money,” “Knocked Up,” “27 Dresses”

Steven R. Covey: Author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”

Glenn Beck: Conservative political commentator

Ticket lottery

The irreverent musical “The Book of Mormon” is virtually sold out for its two-week run at the Benedum Center, Downtown. A few isolated tickets remain — mostly in the $150 section — for some performances. But with a lot of luck and a little effort, it's possible to score one of 25 upfront seats for the hottest show in town.

Tickets priced at $25 each will be available by lottery for each performance when the national tour plays March 26 through April 7 as a presentation of PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh. The seats, located in the first two rows, would otherwise sell for $150 each.

To score a seat in the lottery, you must arrive at the Theater Square box office, 655 Penn Ave., Downtown, beginning two-and-a-half hours before each performance and fill out a card. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random. Only one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Winners must be present.

Musical theater spoofs

Religion isn't the only thing being spoofed in “The Book of Mormon.” Look for sly references or parallels to earlier, more traditional musicals:

• “Hello” that opens the show is a lot like “The Telephone Hour” in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

• Bars of “Look Down” from “Les Miserables” underscore some dark moments.

• “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is the comedic opposite of the upbeat “No Worries” philosophy of “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King.”

• “I Believe” references “Climb Ev'ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music.”

• The villagers' pageant play about the founding of the Mormon faith will be familiar to those who remember the Siamese version of “Uncle Tom's Cabin” in “The King and I.”

What people are saying

This irreverent, musical makes fun of religious beliefs and uses some jaw-droppingly provocative words and offensive situations. Nevertheless, it won 2011 Tony Awards in nine categories, has been running on Broadway for more than two years and the national tour has broken box-office records at theaters around the United States. How do they get away with this?

Here's what creators and theater critics say:

• “There's this line that you can cross all you want as long as you have a reason for doing it. If it has a point and it has a story and it has genuine, real character and emotion, then you can pretty much do whatever you want.”

— Trey Parker, co-creator of the book, music and lyrics with Robert Lopez and Matt Stone

• “If you just looked at the lyrics, you might be offended. If you looked at the pageant on its own, you might be offended. But the package of the show is so traditional — it's so Rodgers and Hammersetein — that I think people feel comforted by that.” — Casey Nickolaw, choreographer and co-director

• “I want the musical to show people the depths of human lows, and then to lift them back up in a really true way, past where they would normally go.”

— Robert Lopez, co-creator of the book, music and lyrics with Trey Parker and Matt Stone

• “There's so much more to the show than just the shock value. It speaks greatly about religion and the need for it in our lives.”

— Justin Bohon, Elder Smith, Broadway production

• “The show really is, to me, about hope, and I think that's what faith gives you, hope to go on and wake up every morning and have a reason for living.”

— Rory O'Malley, Elder McKinley, original Broadway production

• “The most surprising thing about ‘Mormon' may be its inherent sweetness. There is an exhuberance in the show's spirit that makes it feel both fresh and unabashedly traditional. Makes us laugh and cheer.”

— Elysa Gardner, USA Today

• “ ‘The Book of Mormon' manages to offend, provoke laughter, trigger eye-rolling, satirize conventions and warm hearts, all at the same time. An inventive, subversive, roof-raising show … the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps us do good.”

— Mark Kennedy, Associated Press

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