'Book of Mormon' lives up to its reputation

In this file theater publicity image provided by Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Andrew Rannells, center, performs with an ensemble cast in 'The Book of Mormon' at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York.
In this file theater publicity image provided by Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Andrew Rannells, center, performs with an ensemble cast in 'The Book of Mormon' at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York.
Photo by AP
| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 8:18 p.m.

Much has already been written about the irreverence, satire, profanity and other objectionable language that theatergoers will experience at “The Book of Mormon.”

Those claims have not been overstated.

The national touring production that's playing through April 7 at the Benedum Center as a presentation of the PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh series is definitely not for children.

Adults who think that religion is not a subject for humor or questioning, and those who prefer not to hear four-letter words or explicitly named body parts should not attend.

What may have gotten lost in all those warnings is that all the impudence and subversive humor is surrounded by an artfully crafted, traditional and reassuringly familiar musical-theater format.

Despite some qualms that the musical makes fun of Africans or Mormons or religion, it's really a show that encourages us to recognize and laugh at ourselves.

The musical follows a pair of young, earnest, squeaky-clean Mormon men who are sent to Uganda for two years of missionary service. Within minutes of their arrival in an African village, they discover they are woefully ill-equipped them to survive, much less convert, the villagers.

Nothing they have been taught about their religion or their vision of life and the afterlife seems to have much meaning for people coping with an insane warlord, AIDs, dirty water, mutilation and exotic tropical diseases.

Nevertheless, Elder Price (Mark Evans) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) eventually manage to muddle through and bring about a reasonably acceptable resolution that satisfies both the villagers' needs and the missionaries' beliefs.

That's no easy task.

But the show's creators — Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who brought you “South Park,” and Robert Lopez, who created the musical “Avenue Q” — master the equally difficult task of balancing shock and laughter in a story that has a surprisingly touching and intelligent conclusion.

While Mormons and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the musical's religion of record, the show's barbs are really aimed at anyone's belief system and its stories, whether they are Christians, Buddhists, Druids or adherents of magical realism.

Parker, Stone and Lopez also pay homage to Broadway musicals with witty references to shows such as “The Lion King,” “Les Miserables” and “The King and I.”

Much of the credit for the show's sparkle goes to choreographer Casey Nicholaw who sprinkles glitzy, go-for-broke and over-the-top dance numbers throughout the proceedings.

The “Spooky Mormon Hell” fantasy sequence will be hilarious and familiar to anyone who ever worried about the eternal consequences of minor infractions.

Straight-faced, sincere Mormon men tapping their way through the philosophical “Turn It Off” also delight.

Scenic designer Scott Pask has spared no expense in creating colorful, lavish settings that move seamlessly and entertainingly through a variety of locations. The same can be said for Ann Roth's costumes, which reach from elaborate religious pageants and violent dreams to reality.

The cast is huge — 34 — but most of the heavy lifting is shouldered by three principals.

As the mismatched missionary partners Elders Price and Cunningham, Evans and O'Neill provide the necessary contrasts.

Evans' deeply committed believer Elder Price quickly comes unglued as he begins to doubt his religion and mission. That's when O'Neill's pragmatic Elder Cunningham, who has a little problem with truth-telling, rises to the task set out for them.

Both Evans and O'Neill do an excellent job of mining the humor while showcasing the human frailties and ambitions of their characters.

That's also true of Samantha Marie Ware's portrayal of Nabalungi, a dynamic, relatively fearless but naïve villager who buys into the promise of religion in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.”

In smaller roles, Kevin Mambo projects good sense and resignation as Nabalungi's father “Mafala Hatimbi” and Derrick Williams begins a frightening and violent detachment to his role as The General.

The show is virtually sold out for its two-week run — a few seats remain for some performances — no small feat when most of the seats are priced at $150.

More telling, the expected exodus of offended patrons failed to materialize and the capacity audience laughed loudly and applauded frequently — at least at the March 27 performance.

Though it may not be for everyone, “The Book of Mormon” does ultimately prove that there's more to this musical than shock-value.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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