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updated: 12/23/2012 7:26 AM

Sacred meets profane in stellar 'Book of Mormon'

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  • An enthusiastic audience greeted the arrival of the deliciously subversive, Tony Award-winning "The Book of Mormon" at the show's official opening Wednesday at the Bank of America Theatre.

      An enthusiastic audience greeted the arrival of the deliciously subversive, Tony Award-winning "The Book of Mormon" at the show's official opening Wednesday at the Bank of America Theatre.

  • Nic Rouleau, a veteran of the Broadway cast, plays Elder Price, a young missionary determined to prove himself worthy of the afterlife in the wonderfully irreverent musical "The Book of Mormon," in an extended run at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre.

      Nic Rouleau, a veteran of the Broadway cast, plays Elder Price, a young missionary determined to prove himself worthy of the afterlife in the wonderfully irreverent musical "The Book of Mormon," in an extended run at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre.

  • Ben Platt steals the show as the adorkable Elder Cunningham on Broadway in Chicago's "The Book of Mormon" at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre.

      Ben Platt steals the show as the adorkable Elder Cunningham on Broadway in Chicago's "The Book of Mormon" at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre.

  • Video: "The Book of Mormon"

 
 

For those who appreciate satire that sings and stings, and who don't mind lyrics punctuated with profanities, have I got a show for you.

It's the zestfully subversive, expertly crafted and very funny "The Book of Mormon," the Tony Award-winning musical by Trey Parker and Matt Stone ("South Park") and Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q"). Taking Chicago by storm at Wednesday night's press opening, the Broadway tour is poised to reign supreme for some time. Tickets are sold out through March 3, 2013, and the nearly $1.5 million gross from last week's previews broke Bank of America Theatre records.

Get used to the "Mormons": They're sticking around. And that is good news for audiences of this gleefully profane, expertly paced and wonderfully sung "Book."

Tipping its hat to "The Lion King" and "The King and I," and with fleeting references to "Annie," the show boasts great wit and a winning score. Its tunefulness is evidenced by the irresistible opening salutation "Hello;" the terrific "Hasa Diga Eebowai," an endlessly chipper and irresistibly indecorous "Hakuna Matata" spoof; and the soaring "I Believe." a hilarious testament to the power of faith.

Scott Pask's shifting sets pairing real world squalor against celestial splendor and Brian MacDevitt's swirling, disco-ball-inspired lighting are ideal. So is choreographer and co-director Casey Nicholaw's canny choreography -- reminiscent of theme parks and cruise ships -- which perfectly suits these characters.

That said, what makes this show great is the skill with which tightrope walkers Parker, Stone and Lopez (who collaborated on the book, music and lyrics) lampoon the religion's more fantastical tenets, without ridiculing believers or their faith. For all its skewering of religion -- including sendups of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Jesus (played by Christopher Shyer with a hint of "South Park" character Cartman) -- "The Book of Mormon" celebrates unabashedly the qualities of duty, compassion and loyalty that most religions advance.

Irreverent, even shocking moments abound in this adults-only show where AIDS, female genital mutilation and maggots figure prominently (not to mention comically). Yet "The Book of Mormon" has a big heart and enormous affection for its characters. That is especially true of the principles, a pair of fresh-faced, unfailingly decent, young men who leave their Utah home to serve as missionaries in an impoverished African village terrorized by a warlord with an unprintable name.

The multi-hyphenate, fish-out-of-water, coming-of-age tale centers on BMOCC -- Big Man on Church Campus -- Elder Price (the charismatic Nic Rouleau, a fine singer who recreates the role he played on Broadway). A standout among his fellow missionaries-in-training, Price gets paired with the hapless Elder Cunningham (a show-stealing turn by the adorkable Ben Platt) on a two-year mission to a drought-stricken Ugandan village. Presiding over the small outpost is Mafala (James Vincent Meredith), whose village and daughter Nabalungi (Syesha Mercado whose slight frame belies a big voice) are threatened by the murderous General played by David Aron Damane.

Also on hand is Elder McKinley (fine work by Pierce Cassedy), a repressed young man who can switch off his homosexual urges but cannot fully suppress his inner tap dancer. He informs the newcomers they've been unable to convert the natives, who are skeptical of yet another religious group proposing to ease their suffering by way of the Good Word from a Good Book. All of that is set up for the ensuing culture clash, exuberantly expressed in the outrageous showstopper "Joseph Smith American Moses" -- an inspired (albeit much cruder) re-imagining of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" from "The King and I."

Co-directors Parker and Nicholaw ("Spamalot," "The Drowsy Chaperone") keep the pace brisk and the laughs coming in numbers like "I Am Africa," a riotous sendup of narcissistic rock stars rallying around the cause du jour, and the operatic, over-the-top "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" featuring dancing Starbucks cups along with the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnnie Cochran.

Surely, the easily offended won't be clamoring for tickets. But that just leaves more for those of us who like a bit of blasphemy with our Broadway.

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