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Under the Irreverence in 'The Book of Mormon' Beats a Sweet, Traditional Heart

The Book of Mormon
©2012 Joan Marcus
The Book of Mormon

By now, everyone’s heard about how famously irreverent the award-winning musical “The Book of Mormon” is. The religious satire that pokes hard at the self-serving naïvete of young Mormon men dispatched to evangelize in rural Africa was written by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” / “Frozen” writer Robert Lopez, a creative team whose pointed sense of humor is rivaled only by its love for and deep understanding of traditional musical theatre.But the most shocking thing about “The Book of Mormon,” perhaps, is how Stone, Parker and Lopez balance their “nothing sacred” sense of humor with a quite conventional and gentle message that affirms the positive potential of faith, the destructive power of pride, and the importance of standing up for the powerless. The missionaries are frequently the butt of jokes, but it's their hubris and ineptitude that are being skewered, not the fact of their faith itself. (Interesting proof: the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints – the Mormons themselves – buy full-page color playbill ads, treating the show more like a savvy evangelism tool than a blasphemy that needs to be protested.)“The Book of Mormon” is the story of an odd couple of two young Mormon men embarking on their traditional two-year mission trip to spread the good word of the Latter Day Saints. Over-achieving Elder Price (a preternaturally perfect Mark Evans) prays very hard to be assigned to Orlando, Florida – as close to heaven on earth as he can imagine. (Note: Tune in to Byline on Friday, May 30 at 1 p.m. to hear an interview with Mark "Elder Price" Evans.)Instead, Price is paired with misfit Elder Cunningham (the delightfully awkward Christopher John O’Neill), who knows more about Gandalf and Yoda than Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and dispatched to Uganda, despite their knowledge of Africa gleaned mostly from "The Lion King." They arrive in the local mission, led by Elder McKinley (Grey Henson, an effortless scene-stealer), where they're told to suppress their fears and carry on with the good work ("Turn It Off"). The Ugandan villagers face real hardship – poverty, AIDS, a despotic warlord obsessed with female genital mutilation – and are unmoved by the missionaries until Nabulungi (a luminous Alexandra Ncube, whose voice and stage presence promise great things ahead for her young career), the daughter of a village leader (Mafala Hatimbi, played by Stanley Wayne Mathis), decides that the LDS faith is her ticket to a better life in Utah ("Sal Tlay Kah Siti"). But Price, finding his faith tested, leaves the job of teaching to Cunningham, and the liberties he takes with storytelling ("Making Things Up Again") come back to haunt the mission team when leadership arrives. Despite its affirming message, the show doesn't rest on platitudes about faith, preferring a hearty, very human display of doubt and anger at God ("Hasa Diga Eebowai," a cheerfully blasphemous parody of "The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata") and a very self-aware wink at how absurd faith traditions of all stripes can sound to non-believers ("Joseph Smith American Moses"). A musical's strength can often be gauged by the strength of its production numbers, and "The Book of Mormon" doesn't disappoint. From the strong doorbell-ringing opener "Hello" to the aforementioned "Turn It Off" and "Hasa Diga Eebowai" - not to mention the rock-infused anthem "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" -  the show team (including choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who co-directed with Parker) knows how to put a talented ensemble of singers and dancers to work. Memorable duets include Price and Cunningham exploring the evolution of their relationship in "You And Me (But Mostly Me)" and "I Am Here For You," while Cunningham and Nabulungi have fun with the sweet double entendres of "Baptize Me," which highlights the often-overlooked sensuality of religious conversion. The national tour of the nine-time Tony Award-winning musical runs through June 8 in the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall. Here’s ticket information, and a lottery for $25 tickets will also be held daily in the Kentucky Center lobby for each performance. This show closes the 2013-14 Broadway in Louisville season. Next season opens October 7 with "I Love Lucy Live on Stage," and will also feature "The Lion King" and "Newsies."