As far as hyped Broadway shows go, The Book of Mormon began its four-week run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday amid stratospheric expectations.
Still one of the hottest tickets in New York more than two years after winning the best musical Tony Award, the show — which manages to be both crazily outrageous and tender-hearted — is also a love letter to classic Broadway musicals and razzle-dazzle choreography. That it’s the creation of South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez promises a certain tone, quality and satirical cleverness.
So the morning-after question has to be: Does The Book of Mormon live up to all that hype? Yes, it most certainly does.
Sure, its adult content and language may turn off the most conservative theatergoers (who probably shouldn’t be going to a musical by the South Park guys in the first place). And some devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints may understandably have a problem with the depiction of their faith’s founding beliefs (though if you visit www.thebookofmormon.org, touted in three of the show’s Playbill ads, you’ll discover that the church has turned the show’s popularity into an information-sharing opportunity).
But for the 85,000 or so people who will see The Book of Mormon during its Fort Lauderdale run, the show is likely to be one of the most entertaining experiences they’ll have in many a season.
The musical follows the hilarious, sometimes horrifying trials of two young Mormon “elders,” Kevin Price (Mark Evans) and Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), after they’re paired at the Salt Lake City training center and sent on a two-year mission to war-torn Uganda.
From the get-go, it’s clear that these guys share a gender and a faith but are otherwise polar opposites. Elder Price is the poster boy for Mormon missionaries, handsome and hot and earnest, a true believer who’s also convinced he’s special. Elder Cunningham is pudgy, slovenly, imaginative, needy and too lazy to have actually explored his religion chapter and verse.
The two would have trouble working together under the best of circumstances, which is not what they find in Uganda. Widespread AIDS, female genital mutilation, a rampaging warlord (Derrick Williams) and stark poverty are just some of the trials bedeviling the populace of the little village where Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are to do their evangelizing.
The Mormons are at first quite taken with a joyous Lion King-style song that village leader Mafala Hatimbi (Stanley Wayne Mathis), his pretty daughter Nabulungi (Samatha Marie Ware) and the others sing when their troubles feel like too much to bear. But after grooving along with their new African neighbors, the boys are horrified to learn that the cheerful refrain Hasa Diga Eebowai means giving a literal and metaphoric middle finger to God.
That’s how The Book of Mormon goes, juxtaposing hope and despair, sweet innocence and raunchiness, faith and superstition. The show is hilariously and beautifully crafted, so that even as you recoil from bits that seem to go too far — say the antics of Genghis Khan, Adolph Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran during the Spooky Mormon Hell Dream number, or the really gross parts of the offensive yet wildly funny Joseph Smith American Moses — you move on to the next gut-busting laugh.
The production is of a piece with the work by Parker, Lopez and Stone. Co-directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw, with stellar choreography by Nicholaw, the show unfolds within a special proscenium arch by designer Scott Pask that’s made to look like a Mormon temple, with a moveable golden Angel Moroni at its apex.
Stephen Oremus’ rich vocal arrangements make the missionaries sound like the male section of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, then like a gaggle of Broadway chorus boys, while the actors playing the Ugandans become a glorious African chorus.
The touring cast is superb, from the winsome Ware to the comically terrifying Williams, whose facial reactions when Elder Price decides to share the Mormon message with the general are priceless. As Elder McKinley, a way-gay missionary whose musical advice regarding non-Mormon impulses is Turn It Off, Grey Henson is irresistible. Most significantly, the vital and palpable chemistry between the square-jawed Evans and the goofy O’Neill gives the show its heart. And that, like laughter, is something The Book of Mormon has in abundance.