Get Converted

The missionaries are loose in Uganda while the songs and laughs soar in The Book of Mormon

It all begins on a stage drenched in an image of celestial glory, appropriate as a backdrop for an evangelical meeting or a Pat Robertson broadcast. But from that point on, religion in general (and Mormonism in particular) are in for a rough yet oddly affectionate ride in the enormously entertaining The Book of Mormon.

With book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, this is a thoroughly immersive Broadway musical featuring melodies you want to hug to your chest—along with moments of gasp-inducing irreverence. That's a heady brew, and this touring cast brings it off with nary a wrinkle or hitch.

So if you can find a ticket somewhere, go. (If you're desperate, there are daily drawings for a few $20 tickets prior to each show.) In any case, you should certainly try to get your buns down to the Palace Theatre.

There are two worlds represented in Mormon, and they couldn't be more different. From the Mormon enclave of Salt Lake City, here come the male missionaries dressed like the Blues Brothers but absent the riffs and outrageousness. Instead, these young men are off to make their bones in the Church by gaining converts in far-flung locales.

Trainees Cunningham and Price are flung the farthest, all the way to the show's second locale, a devastated skid mark of earth in Uganda ruled over by the warlord General Butt-Fucking-Naked. Scrubbed and rosy-cheeked, our pair of idealistic Mormons join up with others of their tribe and try to light the fire of belief in people beset by AIDS, hunger, female circumcision—you name it.

Starting with the upbeat and overlapping lyrics of the show opener "Hello!", the songs are tuneful and toe tapping, even when the lyrics veer off into uncharted waters.

Even though Price is a Latter Day stud with serious charisma, he is terminally sad because he wanted to be sent to Orlando for his missionary assignment. So the rumpled and plucky Cunningham is left to deal with the Ugandans and their daily terrors.

Finding the actual teachings of the Book to be pretty boring for the restless natives, he starts inventing stuff, weaving in bits and pieces from Star Wars and other contemporary sources. The result is a profane and bastardized version of Mormonism, but one that oddly starts to work for these humble folk who desperately need something to believe in.

And that's where this show, famous for its often unbridled offensiveness, finds its heart. Importantly, this is the warm feeling you leave the theater with, proving that there is more than one way to find answers to unanswerable questions.

As Cunningham, Christopher John O'Neill is both funny and touching, finding his laughs within his character and not relying (too much) on schtick. Mark Evans is his match as Price, conveying the egocentric passion of this guy, especially in the hilarious "You & Me (But Mostly Me)."

The imposing general is played by Derrick Williams with appropriate aggressiveness, and Samantha Marie Ware embodies the lovely Nabulungi. When she sings of the magical place the missionaries have come from, adorably mispronounced in "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," you could just melt.

In fact, the entire ensemble is spot on under the direction of Parker and Casey Nicholaw, who also provide the robust and dazzling choreography.

True, this production has the ability to potentially turn off some people due to a highly inventive use of profanity and some decidedly non-devout imprecations to heavenly beings.

But when you realize those words are being used to express the frustration and torment that all of us share as human beings who really have no idea why we're here and are being put through all this "life" stuff, it all makes perfectly distorted sense.

The creators know that we're all in the same boat. So if your  beliefs don't hurt others, feel free to devote yourself to Joseph Smith, God, Jesus Christ, American musicals, or whatever gets you through the night.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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