Review: The Book of Mormon
Fish don't get much farther out of water than the leads in this Trey Parker-Matt Stone-Robert Lopez musical: two Utah-bred Mormons as lily-white as their starched, short-sleeved shirts in a Ugandan village beset by poverty, AIDS, and a vicious warlord for whom "shove The Book of Mormon up your ass" is not a figure of speech.
And you can be sure that the bad boys of South Park and Avenue Q get plenty of comedic mileage out of the culture shock, not a little of it having to do with bodily fluids and human genitalia.
But this Broadway baby actually has more on its mind than shocks for shocks' sake – or, for that matter, holding up the Church of Latter Day Saints to ridicule. The point of stranding Elder Price (the hunky, upright one) and Elder Cunningham (the schlumpy, can't-do-anything-right one) in this African backwater is to explore, of all things, the nature of belief.
Our heroes, such as they are, have been charged with bringing as many Ugandans into the Mormon fold as possible – a mission made all but impossible by the increasingly preposterous tales that form the bedrock of their faith. (Golden plates? Jews sailing to America in Jesus' time? Everyone gets their own planet???) Neither they nor their cadre of fellow missionaries – as gleeful and vivacious a chorus line of repressed homosexual men as you'll find on any continent – have been able to convert a single soul, and, in fact, the brutal realities of village life have made the previously unshakeable belief of Elder Price crumble like a pulverized stone.
Until, that is, Elder Cunningham unleashes himself from the strict narrative of the angel Moroni and Joseph Smith and all, and begins to weave in elements from his own personal belief system: the Book of Luke (Skywalker), the Book of James (T. Kirk), and the Book of Frodo. Suddenly, the villagers find a faith they can relate to, and baptisms are imminent. We're ultimately treated to a moral that affirms that what you believe isn't nearly as important as the idea that whatever you believe makes you a better person.
Along the way, The Book of Mormon treats its audience to a series of outlandish, frequently crude, often hilarious production numbers, tipping many a sacred cow – the American Dream, Christ's suffering on the cross, Bono – and doing so at breakneck speed. At least, that's the case with the national touring production currently ensconced at Bass Concert Hall. The company's energy level would exhaust a gazelle, and each performer's precision is impeccable. Mark Evans, in the central role of true-blue Elder Price, has the kind of electric presence that all but draws the spotlight to him. Kill every light in the place, and he'd still be glowing, the gosh-darn certainty of his destiny beaming through the darkness. And scampering around him, the nerdy, off-his-Ritalin Sancho Panza to Evans' gleaming Don Quixote, would still be the delightful Christopher John O'Neill. O'Neill's evolution from needy, clinging schlub to fist-pumping, pelvis-thrusting missionary on a mission is a joy to behold. Even in a production with as many outstanding numbers as this one, Evans' "I Believe" and O'Neill's "Man Up" are highlights.
Prior to the show's arrival in Austin, word had it that The Book of Mormon managed the neat trick of balancing brash, lewd, outrageous satire with a thoroughly traditional musical comedy. The notion, even in this era of musicals mocking musicals – Urinetown, Monty Python's Spamalot, The Producers – seemed as unlikely as, well, some guy burying a bunch of golden plates at the behest of an angel. But having seen it now with my own eyes, I can testify to this show being both as envelope-pushingly crass as promised and as tightly crafted and, yes, sweet as anything Rodgers & Hammerstein tossed on the stage. Doubt if you must. As for me, I'm a believer.
The Book of Mormon continues through Oct. 13, Tuesday-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 2 & 8pm; Sunday, 1 & 7pm, at Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Dr., UT campus. For more information, call 512/477-6060 or visit www.texasperformingarts.org.