The Book of Mormon

Phyre Hawkins, Mark Evans and Christopher John O'Neill in "The Book of Mormon". Photo by  Joan Marcus.

Phyre Hawkins, Mark Evans and Christopher John O’Neill in “The Book of Mormon”. Photo by Joan Marcus.

by SOPHIE KERMAN
Wholesomely all-American, with unrelenting optimism and unquestioning zeal: am I talking about musical theater, or about the Mormon Church? In The Book of MormonTrey ParkerRobert Lopez, and Matt Stone have found the perfect subject for a Broadway musical. Religious conviction, fear of hell-fire  and idealistic missions seem to have been made for nothing if not the impassioned singing and dancing of an ensemble cast.

The story of two missionaries sent to Uganda, The Book of Mormon takes a lighter touch than you might expect from the creators of “South Park.” Rather than pointing fingers in ridicule, the show is so hilarious because it’s true: in fact, I understand why the Mormon Church has not objected to the show, since (once I could relax my smile for a moment or two) the songs and set pieces taught me a surprising amount about Mormon beliefs. In songs like “I Believe”, we are treated to a list of tenets that sound utterly absurd when belted from the Orpheum stage – but to be fair, so would many other religious beliefs. To my perpetually skeptical mind, the satire in production numbers like this one is directed at any blind faith that is naive enough to try and broadcast itself to the world, rather than at the Mormon Church in particular.

What was less true (and harder to laugh at) were some of the show’s portrayals of Africa. Having experienced Mormon doorbell-ringers ourselves, we can feel fairly justified in enjoying the exaggerated performances of their attempts at conversion; in contrast, the references to AIDS and female genital cutting may be troubling for those who know that they stem from misinformation. (To right some of those wrongs: female genital cutting, though viscerally repugnant to many American women and medical professionals, is most often done voluntarily for cultural reasons – not by force, as the show implies – and Uganda, in fact, outlawed the practice in 2009.)

Despite some of the factual inaccuracies, the show is spot-on when it comes to many Americans’ perceptions of Africa – from the Lion King-style sendoff at the Salt Lake City airport to the troupe of white boys singing “I Am Africa”, Book of Mormon promotes a healthy self-criticism of our desire to “understand Africa” (as though the entire continent were one uniform culture). Even more realistically (unfortunately), there is no sense that the missionaries have learned anything at all about their African neighbors by the end of the show, using them instead as vehicles for their own personal and religious growth.

Given that this is by far the hottest ticket of the season and a winner of nine Tony Awards, I don’t need to tell you that the production itself can’t be beat. Mark Evans is winningly self-centered as the Ken doll-like Elder Price, while Christopher John O’Neill is likeably nerdy as Elder Cunningham – and the entire ensemble is spot-on in their comedic timing and vocal abilities. The choreography by Casey Nicholaw is also fun to watch, energetic, and impressively executed.

Unlike most musicals, the world of The Book of Mormon isn’t as much of a fantasy as we might wish – but the truth in it is what makes the caricatures so incisive and the absurd humor more than just cheap laughs. Sorry if you were looking for an excuse not to spend the money, but this show is just as fun and clever as everyone else has been saying it is.

Book of Mormon, by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez. Presented by the Hennepin Theatre Trust at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis. February 1-24, 2013.  Tickets $39-154 at  www.HennepinTheatreTrust.org or call 1.800.982.2787. In case you didn’t buy tickets a year in advance, there will be a lottery each night for a limited number of $25 tickets. (More information here.)

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