THEATER REVIEW: “The Book of Mormon” @ Playhouse Square by Roy Berko

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Through Sun 9/15

How many times can you see The Book of Mormon and continue to be delighted? I’m at number eight  and counting. Yes, the Huntington Bank Series touring production of the irreverent look at religion, racism, Mormon uptight piety and all things ridiculous, is back again at Playhouse Square, and, if you can believe it, better than ever.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the long-time writers of South Park, are satirical comics extraordinaire.  Their writing marriage with Robert Lopez, the co-creator of the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q, is a union made in heaven (or at least in the Broadway version of heaven).

The Book of Mormon is a satirical musical filled with lots of explicit language. It lampoons organized religion and in its own way mocks traditional musical theater.

The script tells the story of two naïve and optimistic Mormon missionaries (Elder Price and Elder Cunningham) who are sent to a remote village in northern Uganda to spread the Mormon religion.

While the duo is trying to sell the locals on Mormon scripture, the people are more concerned with famine, poverty, female circumcision, war and AIDS, and a brutal warlord who is threatening the locals.

Oh, what to do, what to do? Do the more-pious-than-you have the answer? How did the duo get to Uganda?

Elder Price (Liam Tobin) is the poster boy for the tall, hunky, Ken-doll, clean-cut, perfect teeth, face beautiful, striving for perfection Mormon missionary.  His powerful singing voice makes the image of “sublime” even better.

Elder Cunningham (Jordan Matthew Brown, a Cleveland-area native who has a load of supportive relatives in the area) is a rotund, friendless nerd, who relies on half-truths and a vivid imagination to get by. This is one talented kid who has a totally joyous time playing the comic role.

They were cast as a duo through total serendipity, an act of heaven, and some clever comic writers, to go out and ring the doorbells of the world.

As Elder Cunningham, who admits never having read the mythical Book, makes up fantastic tales, which, in reality, aren’t far from the actual imaginative tales of Adam Smith, Brigham Young, the golden tablets, and the migration of the Mormons from upstate New York to Salt Lake City, he wins over converts. After he baptizes the entire town, the church’s elders come to witness the miraculous success.

The villagers share their understanding of the Cunningham version of their new religion in a reenactment, which parallels to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I, with illusions to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music.

Of course, chaos results, but, as must happen in a take-no-prisoner’s musical comedy, everything turns out fine, and, after a standing ovation, the audience leaves the theater singing, “I Believe.”

The touring show is spectacular. It plays visually and emotionally on all the senses.  From its giddy opening number (think the “Telephone Hour” at the start of Bye, Bye, Birdie, to its mocking use of four-letter words, to its bigger-than-life melodrama, to the over-the-top mythology (often paralleling the belief system to Star Wars), we are sucked into the idea that, as one of the words to the many delightful songs states, “tomorrow is a doper, phatter latter day.” I won’t even go into the concept of the song “Ma Ha Nei Bu, Eebowai!” [“F _ _ _You Heavenly Father”], you just have to experience it to experience it,

The settings, music, costumes, lighting effects, perfect comic timing of the cast, and creative choreography all work.

Alyah Chanelle Scott is enchanting as Nabulungi. Cory Jones is both hysterically funny and evil incarnate, as General Butt-F _ _ king Naked, the war lord. Andy Huntington Jones excels as the “closeted Mormon with the door more than slightly cracked open,” Elder McKinley. The rest of the cast also shines, with special recognition to the young Mormon missionaries, who sing, dance and overplay with the right levels of glee.

Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker’s direction is spot on. Farce, especially musical farce, is hard to accomplish due to its required spoken and sung controlled abandonment, but these guys guide their cast with laser perfection. Nicholaw’s choreography is fun and well-executed.  Ever thought you’d see a dancing kick line of Mormons?

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you haven’t seen The Book of Mormon, or need a new shot of irreverent satire which skewers anyone and everyone, this is an absolute go-see production. If you are a language prude, religious fanatic, or aren’t in the mood for ridiculous delight, too bad, as you are going to miss one hell of a good show. It’s everything a modern musical that is meant for pure entertainment, with a sip of philosophy, should be.

Tickets for The Book of Mormon, which runs through Sun 9/15 at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to playhousesquare.

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