BWW Reviews: The Orpheum Proselytizes - Sort of - With THE BOOK OF MORMON
I see them occasionally - white shirts (usually with pockets), black trousers, clean-shaven, and cradling folders and totes. They often are on a corner; at times, they are walking through the parking lots of apartment complexes. They are unfailingly polite; more often than not, they respect our "Puh-lease"-don't-bother-me looks or our efforts to look as if more important business is calling us elsewhere. These sweet-natured people are usually more interested in our welfare than we ourselves are, and, well, that's nice.
Years ago, when the now-tamer-than-tame BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE was making its network debut, I had settled down with my Lady Cousin to see what naughtiness was about to be censored on the small screen, and I glanced out the window to see two of these soul savers approaching her door. The movie had not yet begun. "Laverne," said I, "there are two . . . ." I didn't even have to finish the sentence. With a celerity that would have left Wonder Woman at the starting gate, Laverne had replaced the NATIONAL ENQUIRERS and movie magazines on the coffee table with the family Bible; and poor BOB AND CAROL and crew were replaced by Public Television. Since then, I find myself somewhat exasperated when these sincere individuals approach; they're rather like harmless velociraptors, traveling in pairs and wanting to share their rose-colored glasses with those of us willing to give the time or attention to look through them.
Now, those mischievous "guilty laugh" inducers, Messrs. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, along with Robert Lopez, have generously given these cheerful missionaries their earthly desserts, and are eager to share them in the latest production at the Orpheum; and if you think that's encouraging, just remember what train wrecks they left of the Brothers Baldwin. There are no "sacred cows" when these two enter the barn - no one is spared; political correctness is hung out to dry in the Sahara. I wonder what would be left of the dais if they ever received the Mark Twain Prize for Humor: It's a scary thought. THE BOOK OF MORMON will probably come to represent their seminal work.
The protagonists are an off-center duo of mismatched personalities, whose secular antecedents are Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello (more recently, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, who, if they could sing and were about five years younger, might have taken a film version of this and run with it). While "Elder Price"(a shining Mark Evans) may not have actually seen Joseph Smith's "Golden Tablets," he is the "Golden Boy" among the young missionaries as pairs are chosen and assignments are passed out: He is unlucky on both counts. His partner is the eager-to-be accepted "Elder Cunningham" (Christopher John O'Neill, a sort of Melissa McCarthy character in BRIDESMAIDS). Not exactly a by-the-BOOK OF MORMON follower (he hasn't even read it!), the cheerful Cunningham, so happy at long last to have "a friend," is a disappointment to Price. At least, there's the possibility that their post might be Price's "Emerald City," Orlando; but that is not to be. Instead, while other pairs draw countries like Japan or France, the unlucky "draw" for the mismatched duo is a strife-riddled Uganda, where they'll encounter not only poverty and recalcitrance, but a dangerous warlord threatening to circumcise all the women of the village.
Once in Uganda, they are greeted by district leader "Elder McKinley" (Grey Henson), who offers them a way to deal with the culture shock and violence they have encountered on their arrival in the clever "Turn It Off," in which all the young Mormons offer a "bury your head in the sand" approach to coping with naughty desires and anything unpleasant. Soon, the young missionaries are nervous about the demands of the Mission President to know why they have had zero converts. As Price's resolve begins to crumble, the bumbling Cunningham, encouraged by the beautiful and spirited "Nabulungi" (Alexandra Ncube), doggedly tries to continue the Mission, plugging in characters from STAR WARS and THE HOBBIT to make the story more interesting. As a result, the members of the tribe line up for baptism, and the plucky Cunningham's star ascends. So successful is he, in fact, that the Mission President plans a personal visit. Price, on the other hand, confronts the dangerous general with his more "by the BOOK" approach -- and finds the BOOK stuck somewhere other than a shelf.
Of course, all of this gets resolved by the play's end, but not before a barrage of clever touches (I love the nod to "technology" embraced by the excited Nabulungi) and some rather "in your face" big production numbers, notably Price's dream of Orlando, which plummets into a version of Hell featuring a singing Hitler and Attila the Hun, and the tribe's retelling of the story of Joseph Smith, staged for the benefit of the visiting Mission President and unfortunately revealing the "imaginative" touches that Cunningham incorporated to keep his listeners awake. That number is jaw-dropping for a number of visual and verbal shocks.
The creators of this musical could have actually used any religion as a basis for what it is ultimately trying to communicate: That the trappings and teachings of any faith are all dependent on metaphor, and it doesn't matter whether it's a prophet who buries Golden Tablets or a klutzy Missionary who spins fanciful stories, if the approach works - it works. It's a kind of "just chill" attitude toward the subject matter -- and the questionable manner in which it is presented.
The musical numbers are imaginatively staged, and in their own way pay homage to other musicals (intentionally or not). For example, when Nabalungi sings a sweet number about the life she envisions, she might as well be "Audrey" singing "Somewhere That's Green" from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; Price's nightmare is a tribute to the tackiness of "Springtime for Hitler" in THE PRODUCERS, and the tribe's interpretation of what they have learned about Mormonism is akin to the account of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN in THE KING AND I. Stephen Oremus' musical arrangements, Casey Nicholaw's choreography, and Scott Pask's scenic designs are more than professional.
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, this cartoon-come-to-life production throws subtlety and political correctness to the winds; anyone familiar with SOUTH PARK should know in advance that the authors are fearless in their willingness to explore new ways to offend. I wasn't surprised to see the exit a few theatregoers who thought they were up to handling the songs and storylines. However, the enthusiastic audience that stood and applauded proved to be more than willing acolytes. Through June 29. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2013, courtesy of THE BOOK OF MORMON First National Tour.