It may be hard to believe, but despite the fact The Book of Mormon has been a huge hit on stages around the world ever since 2011, I had somehow never seen it. I changed that status when I attended the current touring production at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, and I’m happy to be able to say that clearly this show is here to stay, just like Rodgers and Hammerstein hits of old.
That might seem odd in referring to an often raunchy evening out, as you would expect from its creators, South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone (along with Robert Lopez of Avenue Q fame). But while The Book of Mormon is certainly not shy about using the f-word, or showing exaggerated (and very funny) sexual activity, in its structure and with its intentionally familiar mix of Broadway song types, it often reminded me of some classic stage musicals. (There’s even a much distorted pageant version of the story of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith that couldn’t help but recall The King and I’s "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet for me.)
In case you’re not familiar with the story, it begins with a number presenting what many of us think of when we think of Mormonism: clean-cut young men wearing ties ringing doorbells and hoping to convert you, with a song simply titled “Hello.” Having completed their missionary training, some of these Mormons (bewilderingly called “Elders”) are eagerly awaiting their assignments to go out into the world and draw new followers.
Among them are Elder Price (Liam Tobin), confident to the point of cockiness and hoping for a mission to Orlando; and Elder Cunningham (Jordan Matthew Brown), a nerdy, insecure guy who also likes to make things up. Of course, this odd couple is paired on their assignment, which, far from Orlando, turns out to be in Uganda. And the realities of villagers’ lives spent under threat from warlords, AIDS and female circumcision, along with the usual poverty and illnesses, immediately put the elders’ heads (and ours) in a whirl, with a rousing number called “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” (I can’t translate the phrase exactly here, but let’s just say it’s a strong rebuke of the Supreme Being who does nothing to help their situation.)
Among the villagers are Mafala Hatimbi (Jacques C. Smith) and his daughter, Nabulungi (Alyah Chanelle Scott, a charmer), whose name the goofy Cunningham mispronounces in a variety of absurd ways. Thinking that converting means she and the others can make a move to “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (Salt Lake City), she’s willing to give Mormonism a chance. But between the murderous warlord General (Corey Jones) and the straitlaced mission president (Ron Bohmer, who also plays Joseph Smith in some hilarious accounts of the finding of those gold plates from the angel Moroni), that dream is threatened.
The cast of this tour is highly energetic, well up to the exciting original choreography by Casey Nicholaw that accompanies the rock/pop/Broadway score, and to finding the balance between outrageous comedy and some actually more touching moments. Larger-scale numbers like “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Joseph Smith American Moses” are performed both meticulously and imaginatively. The show’s leads, from the stalwart Tobin to the doofus-turned-hero (sort of) Brown to the enchanting Scott, feel fresh in their roles. And the whole ensemble makes for a joyous close with “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day.”
The Book of Mormon runs through Jan. 12 at the Van Wezel; for tickets call 263-6799 or go to vanwezel.org.