by Clark Groome
Believe the hype. “The Book of Mormon” deserves all the kudos it has received since opening on Broadway early in 2011. The story of two Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda is both profane and profound. It satirizes the Mormons’ missionary practices while simultaneously showing that decency and courage can overcome the evil faced in the darkest part of Africa.
At the Forrest Theatre through September 14, “The Book of Mormon” is the product of the fertile imaginations and significant talents of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, creators of TV’s “South Park” and Broadway’s delightful “Avenue Q.” It was nominated for 14 Tony Awards, winning nine, including the Tony for best musical.
To summarize briefly: the handsome and cocky Elder Kevin Price (KJ Hippensteel) and the schlumpy and awkward Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) are sent to northern Uganda to convert people in the midst of war, the AIDS epidemic and the mistreatment of women.
The missionaries already on station have had no luck with the natives. It is the awkward, insecure and totally decent Elder Cunningham who succeeds in getting through to the people, although he does have to revise the Mormon story a bit in order to do so. Their success is astounding, although the Mormon higher-ups in charge of the African missionaries are shocked by what they see and hear.
While the first act takes a while to get going, the second act is a comedic and theatrical masterpiece. For all its profanity, “The Book of Mormon” is naughty, not dirty. It’ll stun you at times, but in much the same way that innocent children learning a bad word at school or asking an embarrassingly frank question would.
While the show may at times seem offensive, its characters have such big hearts it is ultimately as charming as it is shocking. While satirizing the somewhat shallow approach to spreading the Gospel, it also embraces that message in a way that is surprisingly effective.
The score is filled with clever and tuneful songs, all performed with an earnestness and humor that’s almost contagious. Fight the sometimes – often, actually – filthy language if you want but it’s likely you’ll stop resisting before you know you’ve been converted.
The touring company cast is first rate. In addition to Hippensteel and O’Neill, the terrific Alexandra Ncube plays the lovely Nabulungi, the first native to be baptized. The rest of the company, some in smaller roles, others in the chorus, are practically flawless.
Directed by Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also choreographs the terrific and witty dancing), “The Book of Mormon” is the funniest show to appear since Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” opened in April, 2001. Scott Pask, Ann Roth, Brian MacDevitt and Brian Ronan are the show’s excellent designers.
“The Book of Mormon” is, in many ways, an old-fashioned musical comedy. It’s smart and clever with interesting characters surrounded by a nifty score and fresh story, which make this potentially off-putting show so entertaining and funny.
For tickets call 800-447-7400 or visit www.telecharge.com. A ticket lottery will be held at the Forrest Theatre (1114 Walnut St.) beginning two-and-one-half hours prior to each performance. Each lottery player may make one entry per performance for one or two tickets. Price of the tickets for lottery winners, who will be selected two hours before show time, is $27 each.