Broadway/SD’s ‘Book of Mormon’ Is Funny, But It Misses the Point

One of the first questions on an informed public mind, even if its owner has never seen The Book of Mormon, would probably relate to how Mormons themselves feel about the household-name musical that hoists them on their own petards. Since the entry’s Broadway debut in 2011, their reactions have ranged from deep-seated disdain (including a spate of vandalism) to rousing applause (in Utah, yet!), with the most measured response coming from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints itself.

“The production,” the Church’s official 2011 statement reads, “may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

The guy who wrote that seems comfortable in his own skin, but it also sounds like he hasn’t seen the show. On both counts, he may be better off – for while The Book of Mormon (latest Nederlander Organization entry from Broadway/San Diego) is a decent stage sketch, it’s also a largely failed attempt at relating an old wives’ tale. Wives’ tales are meant to expose truth to ridicule – and since Mormon truth is so highly objectified in the public consciousness, the ridicule quotient here misses the mark accordingly.

The show is a theatrical indictment, however funny (sometimes very funny), of perceived Mormon gullibility. Theater it is not.

Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes, right) talks a good game, but it turns out he's preaching to the choir. Photo by Joan Marcus

Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes, right) talks a good game, but it turns out he’s preaching to the choir. Photo by Joan Marcus

As Jesus said “Go forth and teach all nations,” Mormons are pressed into service as a form of charity around the world — only this time, two young missionaries are picked to convert the masses in an unsuspecting little village in Uganda. You can’t tell zealot Elder Price anything about his faith, which he lives day in and day out; Elder Cunningham, his partner, is a bit of a dweeb who likes to inflate the truth, much to his detriment (and, as it turns out, he’s never read the Book of Mormon). Both men soon discover that Ugandan society is rife with violence and poverty and that their mission might not be the piece of cake they’d hoped.

From there, one Nabulungi is the pair’s lone convert and longs for a trip to Salt Lake City – but once baptized, she’s persuaded that Cunningham’s account of Mormon history (featuring figures like founder Joseph Smith and angel Moroni) is a bushel of lies. The villagers are three steps ahead; they knew Cunningham’s declarations are metaphors for the world we all envision – and as the stick-in-the-mud mission president terminates the pair’s effort, Cunningham and Price emerge the wiser. All’s right over the land, Mormons or no.

The Book of Mormon‘s music was written by Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez, with lyrics and libretto created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, late of TV’s South Park. Just as the acclaimed series takes on cultural evils and sundry politicians and celebs, so too did Stone and Parker conceive of their jab at Mormonism’s place in society – the result is some passable satire, with stories of Cunningham’s “death” at the hands (paws?) of lions and the threat that God will turn the village general into a lesbian if he doesn’t watch himself.

But dammit, so much of this show revolves around so much plain silliness that it needn’t inform itself through the public’s perception of Mormonism. Billy Harrigan Tighe’s Price is so giddy that the character could stand out in a show about anything; Nabulungi’s name is alternately “Neutrogena” and “Necrophilia,” for absolutely no apparent reason (this passes for humor?!). Sight gags and double-takes rule the stage – and while they fuel the cast’s obvious exuberance, they also wax gimmicky and stale at the moments the piece wants to settle into itself. Small talk over substance.

The look on Elder Cunningham's (A.J. Holmes) face is priceless, at least before his trip to Uganda. Photo by Johan Persson

The look on Elder Cunningham’s (A.J. Holmes) face is priceless, at least before his trip to Uganda. Photo by Johan Persson

Somehow, the Broadway show was nominated for 14 Tony Awards in 2011, winning nine and underscoring Parker’s and San Diego native Casey Nicholaw’s places as directors. In the Niederlander edition, Tighe’s Price is insanely and hilariously well-scrubbed, A.J. Holmes’ Cunningham is a master of hangdog angst, Corey Jones is an agreeably grumpy village general and Alexandra Ncube’s Nabulungi is a vision of performance art amid the numbers “Baptize Me” and “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (that’s “Salt Lake City” to you and me). Cunningham and Price’s “I Am Here for You” is a standout ode to both characters’ naïvete, as is Price’s “Orlando,” under Justin Mendoza’s music direction.

In Nederlander’s best tradition, the show receives lavish technical treatment – the recognizable white shirts and black neckties among Mormons in the field make interesting contrasts against Ann Roth’s exotic costumes and Scott Pask’s scrumptious sets. Brian MacDevitt’s lights and Brian Ronan’s sound reflect the designers’ savvy on the show’s other tech elements.

Everything about the piece, in fact, was fine except for one thing: I wasn’t inclined in the least to suspend my sense of disbelief. Maybe that’s because Mormonism is already rife with such radically different Christian tenets, or maybe the writing’s just plain lazy. I’m inclined to go with the latter – in any event, the show’s dry cultural humor seems diluted here in a never-ending sea of self-indulgence.

This review is based on the opening-night performance of Feb. 24. The Book of Mormon runs through March 6 at San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. Downtown. $32.50-$192.50., (619) 564-3000.


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