BWW Reviews: BOOK OF MORMON Scores a Red-State Victory

Two weeks after conservative Tennessee voters turned the Volunteer State a deeper shade of red and some three years after I was told The Book of Mormon likely would never play the Tennessee Performing Arts Center because its plot is too outlandish, its book too profane, its tenor too irreverent, the second national touring company of the nine-time Tony Award-winning musical came to Nashville and gave audiences a much-needed jolt of electricity that elicited one of the longest, uninterrupted standing ovations I've ever witnessed in TPAC's Jackson Hall.

And while Nashville audiences, lord knows, love to leap to their feet at the end of their touring shows (regardless of whether the productions deserve them or not), you could feel it in the room Tuesday night that this particular audience had fallen completely and genuinely in love with Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone's exquisitely crafted musical about some well-meaning American religious zealots and the Ugandans they are trying to convert.

Everything you've heard about The Book of Mormon is true and all the rave reviews are accurate depictions of what you'll be feeling as you leave the theater (be sure to say "hey, y'all" to the real-life Mormon missionaries in the lobby). But no matter how much you know about the show going in, you will be overwhelmed (but in a good way). It's kind of like being told that becoming a dad will change your life, but you don't realize how much your life will really be changed until after the little tyke completely upends your existence. There, I've said it: The Book of Mormon is life-changing and I am already shopping for the weird, magical underwear online.

Quite simply, The Book of Mormon is musical theatre perfection, as devilishly wry and as nose-tweakingly in-your-face as you could possibly hope for, but it is somehow as charming and as delightful as the sweetest tunefests that inform your theatrical dreams. Clearly, this 21st century show rivals the very best that Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman and Meredith Willson gave the theater in the 20th-and it does so in ways both surprising and expected. If you are having an inner debate about seeing the show (good luck with that...the run at TPAC is essentially sold out), consider the impact on your psyche of missing one of musical theater's seminal productions (yep, I just compared it to Show Boat AND Oklahoma!). The show's creative impact will be felt for years to come.

Controversial though it may be, but there is no denying that The Book of Mormon is enormously entertaining; its musical numbers are thoroughly engaging and brimming with over-the-top showbizzy glitz and glamour, and its characters are warm, funny and caring. Parker and Stone's obvious affection for musical theater can be felt throughout the two-plus hours of running time-while BOM pushes the envelope (hell, it tears at the seams of a heavy-duty manila envelope), the show's structure hews fairly closely to the very best of Broadway musical comedies. To be certain, it's not for the faint of heart and if you're upset by a lot of profanity (which are just very descriptive words to my way of thinking), then this isn't the show for you. But if you are able to accept that words only become dirty if you allow them to, then chances are you can deal with the show's libretto.

David Larsen as Elder Price in Book of Mormon

In the event you've been living under a rock for the past three years, BOM follows the journey of two Mormon missionaries-Elder Kevin Price (the totally committed, totally cute David Larsen is ideal as the Mormon poster boy) and Elder Arnold Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand shines as the endearing nebbish)-on their life-changing two-year mission to Uganda (despite Elder Price's continued dreams of an assignment to Orlando) to bring new souls to the Mormon faith. Although the Mormons are well-meaning and kind to fault, they are ill-prepared for what they encounter in Africa (The Lion King apparently took some poetic license): poverty, famine, disease, female circumcision and a warlord named General Butt-Fucking Naked (David Aron Damane, all blustery and scary) who rides roughshod over the village to which they are assigned.

They are greeted in the village by the beautiful Nabulungi (Denee Benton, sweet voiced and sincere as she dreams of "Sal Tlay Ka Siti"), her father Mafala (James Vincent Meredith exuding paternal care and concern), the struggling (though enormously attractive) villagers-including the doctor (the big-voiced Anthony C. Chatmon II), who has maggots in his scrotum-and the other members of their mission led by the tap-dancing Elder McKinley (played by the delightful Eric Huffman) and his chorus of wide-eyed, brightly smiling, all-American Mormon missionaries who can "Turn It Off" in spectacular Broadway-style. What more could you expect from musical comedy? Plus, the chorus boys are cute and who's to scoff at that?

It's a fantastical tale they weave and you may even be shocked by some of the things presented in the story, but more likely you will be captivated by what transpires onstage. Sure, the show skewers popular culture and zings religion, but there's a great deal of hope expressed throughout. The irreverence associated with Parker and Stone's work shines through, of course, but it's merely equal to the tremendous heart that is felt throughout BOM. And although the rollicking, laugh-out-loud-funny humor that comes off the stage and into your face will leave you gasping for air, you'll also experience some ridiculously sweet moments that are saved from becoming maudlin by the very irreverence that is expertly crafted by Parker, Stone and Avenue Q's Lopez.

Directed with confident aplomb by Parker and Broadway veteran Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone, Spamalot), the play's action is constantly moving, with transitions flowing in such a manner that the action never slows, and Nicholaw's wonderful choreography helps to ground BOM in true musical theater style, creating a magic that is fairly palpable.

Visually, The Book of Mormon is stunning to look at, thanks to the eye-popping costume design by Ann Roth and the Tony Award-winning scenic design by Scott Pask and Brian MacDevitt's sublime lighting design (which also scored a Tony win). Brian Ronan's sound design is some of the best we've encountered in a Nashville theater and Susan Draus conducts a pit orchestra that includes five Nashville players (Steve Patrick, Barry Green, Jimmy Bowland, Betsy Lamb and Ted Wilson) and which fills Jackson Hall with some pretty nifty and memorable music.

The show is basically sold-out and the few tickets that are left are kind of expensive (although absolutely worth the price), but there is a ticket lottery that begins two-and-a-half hours before every show. So give it a shot...if you make it in the theater you'll be so fucking happy you won't be able to stand it! After all, resistance is futile.

  • The Book of Mormon. Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. Music supervision and vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus. Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker. The Second National Touring Company at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through Sunday, November 23. For ticket information, call (615) 782-4040 or go online to tpac.org.

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis