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BWW Reviews: BOOK OF MORMON Writes the Book on Getting Away with Lewd Comedy

At the end of the first act of The Book of Mormon, now playing Austin's Bass Concert Hall for a two week run, I thought to myself, "This is the most distasteful, crude, offensive, and subversive musical I've ever seen, and I'm loving every minute of it." When I went out to the lobby, it was clear that the audience agreed. Everyone was smiling and wiping away tears of laughter as they quoted some of the best lines so far.

Everyone that is except for a certain man in a purple shirt. While everyone else stood around laughing, this man was sprinting to the exit, dragging his wife by the arm as he went. A look of terror was strewn across his face, a look normally reserved for someone who has just learned that Ben Affleck will be the next Batman. As he headed towards the door, I overheard the man said to his wife, "I thought this is supposed to be funny. It's not funny at all. It's just dirty. These guys, what are their names, Matt Parker and Trey Stein, know nothing about comedy."

I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and correct everything that was wrong with his statement. "Excuse me," I wanted to say, "But you are outrageously wrong. First, it's Trey Parker and Matt Stone. You know, the guys who created South Park, a show that's been on COMEDY Central for 17 seasons and has won several Emmy Awards. The same guys who celebrated their Oscar nomination for Best Song by going to the ceremony high on acid and dressed in drag. Given their other work and their personal antics, how did you not know that The Book of Mormon was going to be dirty? Several episodes of South Park have literally been about s***. Really, they've done quite a few 22 minute episodes that concern bodily functions. That's the kind of material that these guys come up with, and they've won some well-deserved Emmy Awards for it. If you see anything created by Parker and Stone, you should expect to be offended. These guys don't push the envelope. They tear it into tiny pieces and then light them on fire. But even if you know nothing about South Park or their other work, you must know something about the reception that The Book of Mormon's received. You must know that it was nominated for fourteen Tony Awards and won nine, including Best Musical. You must know that the show continues to sell out on Broadway, in London, and on tour. You must also know that the Original Broadway Cast Recording became the fastest-selling Broadway cast album in iTunes history and that the same album won a Grammy Award. But even if you didn't know any of that, surely you must have noticed that all 2,900 seats at tonight's performance are filled, and everyone but you is having a great time and laughing 'till it hurts. Given the success of Matt Stone and Trey Parker and the success of The Book of Mormon, I'd say these guys are comedic geniuses, and millions of people would agree with me, provided their funny bones aren't buried in their backsides like yours is. So to quote The Book of Mormon, Hasa Diga, sir!"

I wanted to say all that, but I physically couldn't. My face was numb from laughing too hard for the past hour.

The Book of Mormon takes crass satire (or crasstire as I like to call it) to new heights. It is a brilliantly written, superbly performed, and stunningly designed show that more than lives up to the hype. The show opens on optimistic and somewhat arrogant Elder Price (Mark Evans) who is about to embark on his missionary. While he's confident that he'll be able to convert thousands of people to the church, he quickly realizes that his task will be a challenging one once he learns that his partner will be Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill), a friendless nerd and pathological liar. Things get even worse when the two are sent to a poor village in Uganda where the incessant woe and strife has drained the villagers of any faith in God. As one of them says, it's nothing like Lion King.

True to form, Parker and Stone use the story to completely skewer religion in general and use copious amounts of potty humor and foul language along the way. The book and lyrics--by Stone, Parker, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q fame--is stuffed with four letter words and running gags about male and female anatomy. Some of the content is downright shocking. While I won't spoil any of the best jokes by printing them here, let's just say they make Avenue Q and The Producers look like family friendly fare. Yet no matter how deplorable or scandalous the joke, The Book of Mormon always gets away with it. Yes, it's crude and makes a mockery of anything and everything, but it's also a smart, sharp statement on organized religion. Regardless of what we think about the religious beliefs of others (it's clear that Stone, Parker, and Lopez have some issues with the Mormon beliefs that Jesus visted Ancient Hebrews who lived in America or that each believer will have their own paradise planet in the afterlife), we all need to believe in something. For all of its criticism of religion, The Book of Mormon ultimately supports it in a roundabout way. The show's several spoofs of other musicals and its score--also by Stone, Parker, and Lopez--show the creative team's love of musical theater. Theater fans may notice riffs on everything from The King and I to The Music Man to Wicked, and the tuneful, memorable score fits in with both old and new musical theatre staples.

The hard-working and exceedingly likable cast also helps the show win over even the most conservative and stuffy of audience members, with the exception of the aforementioned purple shirt guy. The ensemble is immediately likeable. The affable Mormon boys are so energetic and peppy that one would think the show was sponsored by Red Bull. They pull off Casey Nicholaw's lively, exuberant choreography with enthusiasm and precision, turning every number into a showstopper. Grey Henson is particularly fun to watch as the closeted Elder McKinley, and he proves to be quite the showman during the tap number "Turn It Off."

The ensemble of Ugandan characters is comprised of some truly gifted comedians and performers as well. As Nabulungi, one of the villagers and the eventual love interest for one of the leads, Samantha Marie Ware is fantastic. She initially comes off a bit dainty and fragile, but when she sings it's clear that she's got a rafter-shaking set of pipes. Broadway veteran Stanley Wayne Mathis is exceptional as Mafala, Nabulungi's father. With him at the helm, the ensemble number "Hasa Diga Eebowai" is a highlight of the night.

Leading the cast are Mark Evans and Christopher John O'Neill in two career-making performances. Evans, a U.K. transplant, brings a wonderful mix of matinee idol looks, precise comedic timing, and thrilling vocals to the role of Elder Price. While Andrew Rannells, the original Elder Price, had a pleasant voice, Evans has a more powerful, fuller voice and arguably a larger range (As a side note, the Deluxe Edition of his debut album, Journey Home, is well worth the $11.99 on iTunes). It only takes a couple of numbers before you realize that Evans is a star on the rise. I would not be surprised if certain Broadway producers plan on calling him once his touring contract ends. As Elder Cunningham, Christopher John O'Neill is a scene-stealer. O'Neill is adorably eccentric and nerdy and fills his performance with unexpected quirks and gags. While the character could become obnoxious and annoying, O'Neill easily maneuvers around traps that would ensnare lesser performers. Every moment with him is hysterical comedy gold.

The Book of Mormon is truly a show that redefines musical theater. The only thing that could be more offensive than The Book of Mormon would be an elementary school production of it. And yet the more shocking the piece becomes, the more delightful it is. With its irreverence and sharp humor, The Book of Mormon is bound to find converts and believers for years to come.

Note: Recommended for mature audiences only. Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.

THE BOOK OF MORMON plays The Bass Concert Hall at 2350 Robert Dedman Dr, Austin 78712 now thru October 13th. Performances are Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm with matinee performances on Saturday at 2pm and Sundays at 1pm. Tickets are $39-$154. For tickets and information, visit http://austin.broadway.com.

Pictured: 1st Photo: THE BOOK OF MORMON 1st National Tour company. 2nd Photo: Mark Evans as Elder Price in THE BOOK OF MORMON 1st National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.



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From This Author - Jeff Davis