THE BOOK OF MORMON at the Ahmanson Theatre
When I first saw The Book of Mormon in 2012, we sat behind an entire row of a dozen or so friends or family members, none of whom looked or acted as though they had ever attended a stage production before.
Although most members of this group were fairly young, sitting directly in front the person next to me was one cartoonishly straight-backed older woman who resembled Dana Carvey as the Church Lady.
And indeed she was. As the group jubilantly shot endless preshow selfies and group photos with set designer Scott Pask’s heavenly sky and massive encompassing Mormon Tabernacle-y proscenium in the background, their spirited conversation soon revealed what their attraction was to this highly controversial musical.
Whether their companionship was familial or congregational, it became clear the entire group was indeed Mormon and their mission was intense curiosity.
From the opening strains of “Hello!,” a canon perpetuus (that’s “rounds” to those who already haven’t just checked Google) featuring a lineup of painfully smiling young men in obligatory white shirts, black pants and ties practicing knocking on doors to tell strangers about the Lord Jesus Christ, every person in the row in front of us looked as though they might crawl under their seats.
Soon, however, all of the younger members of the group began to succumb to Robert Lopez and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s outrageously non-PC humor in a script guaranteed to offend all visiting Church Ladies, not to mention anyone else in earshot.
As the row of Mormon attendees began to loosen up, as though choreographed to do so, each would cautiously, surreptitiously pivot their head to see how their resident Enid Strict was taking the punches. She, in turn, sat totally motionless and, from my view of the left side of her face, she could have been posing for Mount Rushmore throughout the show.
I too began to check poor old Enid out as every visual and verbal blow took its toll, especially when the Ugandan villagers of Mafala Harimbi, where Elder Price and his companion Elder Cunningham (the excellent Liam Tobin and Jordan Matthew Brown) have been sent to Spread the Word, greet the eager missionaries with a huge production number called “Hasa Digga Eebowai,” translated as “Fuck You, God!” and ending with a chorusline of Ugandan natives in unison gleefully lifting their middle fingers to the heavens.
With a militant character named General Butt-Fucking Naked (Cory Jones, who also makes a wonderfully South Park-inspired Satan) always around attempting to kill the village men and kidnap the woman to circumcise them, and the belief by the natives that having sexual relations with infants can cure AIDS, frankly I was surprised to see the Mormon group return after intermission—especially old Enid, someone I was sure would at least sit out Act Two in the lobby before the bus returned to pick them up.
To my great surprise, stoic as she’d been throughout the play, when the cast hit the stage for their thunderous curtaincall, old Enid Strict was the first up on her feet wildly cheering like a Beyhive at a Beyoncé concert.
Yeah, The Book of Mormon has that effect on people. Like South Park, somehow Stone and Parker (who also co-directs and shared one of the production’s nine Tony Awards with Casey Nicholaw for their effort) can get away with any offense, something that personally gives me hope for the future in a world rather devoid of a sense of humor these days.
It still must be a bit of shock for Mormons in attendance when they see Joseph Smith’s “third testament,” the holy text of the Latter-Day Saints, shoved up Elder Price’s fine round ass on an x-ray screen or some discomfort when jokes are made about the sacred ancient writings, engraved onto the Golden Plates discovered buried in prophet Moroni’s backyard in Manchester, New York circa 1827, tossed around the stage like frisbees.
Yet, Mormons aren’t alone here, as Parker and Stone have always proven themselves to be Equal Opportunity Offenders. There’s definitely a delayed laugh from an audience getting used to their signature humor when the young missionaries reluctantly accept their assignment to save souls deep in the pagan jungles of Uganda—Elder Price had prayed daily since childhood he would be sent to Orlando when it was time to begin proselytizing—but are somewhat less traumatized by the destination since the “Lord changed his mind about black people” in 1978.
Mafala Harimbi also has its obligatory resident comely daughter Nabulungi (here beautifully assayed by Aaliyah Chanelle Scott), someone who the smitten Elder Cunningham comments is a “hot shade of black, like a latte.” And there’s that showstopping 11th-hour dance number set in hell overseen by Jones’ huge dancing Satan and featuring the tapdancing skills of Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnny Cochran wearing O.J.’s ill-fitting black leather glove.
Nope. Nothing is safe from Stone and Parker’s outrageously delicious comedic impropriety, including HIV/AIDS, famine, female genital mutilation, latent homosexuality, backwards African culture, Christianity, and Judaism—although without a resident Cartman around to skewer Kyle Broflovski, I felt my own nomadic tribe was sadly a little underrepresented in the barb department.
Of course, the coveted roles of the Howdy Doody-straight Kevin Price and the annoyingly nebbishy Arnold Cunningham proved to be starmakers for Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, but Tobin and Brown are equally impressive in the roles, not at all diminished by life on the road on a lengthy national tour and worthy of all the honors available west of 49th Street at 8th.
Andy Huntington Jones is also a particular standout as Elder McKinley, the mission’s closeted district leader who practices and teaches thought suppression, including obviously burying his own unspoken desire for a little Mormon-condemned male companionship as he belts a rousing though occasionally limp-wristed “Turn It Off.”
Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd is hilariously deadpanned as the village doctor suffering from maggots in his scrotum, an ailment he has no idea how to cure—a recurring theme throughout in both book and song—and prolific Broadway male ingenue Ron Bohmer, with whom I worked while doing press for the national tour of Lord Andrew’s Aspects of Love a mere three decades ago, makes an impressive transition to more long-in-tooth characters roles as Kevin’s dad and the ghost of Joseph Smith himself.
Aside from Best Musical and Parker and Nicholaw’s aforementioned Best Direction honors, Book of Mormon also won Tonys for Pask’s whimsically South Park-ian sets, Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, Brian Ronan’s sound, Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus’ orchestrations, and Nikki M. James’ original performance as Nabulungi.
Still, perhaps the most deserved recognition went to the groundbreakingly off-centered book and infectious musical score by the show’s creators, whose infamous success on the small screen fueled their mission to leave no rock unturned in their mission to shock one and all, and their equally gifted collaborator Robert Lopez, the youngest and only double EGOT winner ever, co-creator of that other outrageous musical Avenue Q and a double Oscar winner for Frozen’s “Let It Go” and Coco’s “Remember Me.”
The Book of Mormon has been called the Best Musical Ever and Best Musical of the Century, something with which I personally almost agree, but I could more enthusiastically get behind calling it the Best Musical Satire ever written. So far.
What makes this so special and encourages Church Ladies to stand and cheer when it offends just about everything in which they believe and hold sacred? It’s simply its heart and ability in the end to herald the redemptive power of love as it gently celebrates the sacrifices of people doing their best to help save our species from itself, no matter how that service is disparaged and vilified by others.
Geebus knows I’m the last person to want to find anyone at my door selling any organized religion offering fantasy answers to try to explain the overwhelming mysteries and inequities of life, but hey, you’ve gotta admire the spunk of those willing to take their lumps for what they believe and ironically, through its brazenly irreverent humor, The Book of Mormon delivers that message—no Parker/Stone-inspired pun intended here—in spades.
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