BWW Review: Raunchy, Yet Hilarious BOOK OF MORMON Hits All its Targets

Photo: Joan Marcus

After seeing a villager shot in the face during a missionary trip to Uganda, Elder Price comes to a stunning revelation in the hilarious musical BOOK OF MORMON: "Africa is nothing like THE LION KING."

The same could be said of the sacrilegious, scatological musical, which opened April 19 and will be playing through April 24 at the Ohio Theatre (39. E. State Street in downtown Columbus). The musical, written by SOUTH PARK's Matt Stone and Trey Parker and AVENUE Q'S lyricist Robert Lopez, may borrow liberally from other musicals' songs and dance numbers but the two-act, two-and-a-half-hour musical has a spirit that is all its own. It's rude, raunchy, and, at times, right on the money.

Despite being teamed up with chronic underachiever and compulsive liar Elder Arnold Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), Elder Kevin Price (played by Ryan Bondy) dreams of being of the Mormon missionary "who changed all of mankind." However, the pair quickly discovers their Ugandan outpost is not so easily changed. While the rest of their fellow missionaries have failed to win over a single convert, it's Cunningham who finally reaches the people by incorporating the plots of STAR WARS, LORD OF THE RINGS and the solutions to every Ugandan trouble into the Book of Mormon.

Sounds blasphemous, right? If you think Parker, Stone and Lopez were concerned about offending 14 million members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, you probably don't watch SOUTH PARK or listen to AVENUE Q. This not-for-the-religious-right musical takes pot shots not just at Mormons, but Jews, Christians, warlords, religion, Disney, the AIDs virus, and Starbucks Coffee.

"Hasa Diga Eebowai" is the show's most irreligious tune and yet its most infectious. In the song, Mafala (Sterling Jarvis) tells the missionaries that Ugandans say Hasa Diga Eebowai when things go wrong. Cunningham naively asks, "Does it mean no worries for the rest of our days?" "Kind of," Mafala says with a snide smile before he explains further. "When the world is getting you down, there's nobody else to blame! Raise your middle finger to the sky and curse His rotten name!"

The chemistry between Strand, a pudgy misfit among a chorus of lean, keen, missionary teams, and Bondy, who channels his inner Jim Carrey throughout the show, is one of the things that makes the show work. Their duet "You and Me (But Mostly Me)" showcases Bondy's bravado and Strand's neurotic neediness.

Candace Quarrels (Nabulungi) also forms a unique chemistry with Strand, even though Cunningham can never pronounce her name correctly. Cunningham's attempts run the gamut from Jon Bonjovi, Jambajuice and Nicki Minaj before settling on Nala in yet another nod to THE LION KING.

Edward Watts, who provides the missionary voice and plays Price's dad, Joseph Smith and the missionary president, Jarvis, Daxton Bloomquist (the closeted Elder McKinley) and David Aron Damane (General B.F. Naked) all round out a very talented cast.

Those with sharp ears can pick out parodies of many different Broadway staples. In addition to "Hasa Diga Eebowai's" play on "Hakuna Matata," "You and Me (But Mostly Me)" is a spin on WICKED's "The Wizard and I" and "We Are Africa" is a jab at "We Are The World." My favorite, however, was "Joseph Smith, American Moses" is a takeoff of THE KING AND I's bizarre "The Small House of Uncle Thomas."

I am not Mormon and I knew what I was getting into as I stepped into the theater. However I kept wondering how audiences would have reacted if it was their church of choice being mocked. Would the show work if it were aimed at the doctrines of the Catholic, Scientologist, Jewish, or Muslim faiths?

When THE BOOK OF MORMON came out in 2011, winning nine of the 14 Tony Awards, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints released the following press release on the musical: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."

Five years later, LDS has inserted three separate ads into the show's Playbill, encouraging patrons to check out the Book of Mormon after attending the play. After all, one of the ads read, "the book is always better (than the musical.)"

THE BOOK OF MORMON plays at 8 p.m. April 22, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on April 23 and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on April 24 at the Ohio Theatre (39. E. State Street in downtown Columbus). Call the CAPA Ticket Center at 614-469-0939 for ticket information.

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From This Author Paul Batterson