‘The Book of Mormon’
Through Aug. 18
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
You’ve seen them. Those squeaky clean Mormon boys on their post-high school mission, indefatigably going door to door pushing the Latter Day message.
Dressed in their white shirts, black ties and pants, they look lifted from the Eisenhower era. “The Book of Mormon,” the Broadway favorite from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lop, hilariously trades on this iconic image so ripe for lampooning. And now the first national tour of the delectably irreverent musical is parked at the Kennedy Center through late August. Tickets have been in extremely high demand.
The action kicks off in Salt Lake City (imagined here as a flat, pretty colored picture map) with a passel of eager young Mormons honing their proselytizing skills in the very funny opening number “Hello.” Next the young men are paired off and assigned their mission destinations. Mormon poster boy Elder Price (Mark Evans) is matched with unlikely counterpart Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill). With his perfect hair and no-nonsense demeanor, Price is an admired over achiever; while Cunningham who’s never been able to slog through the Book of Mormon is rumpled and desperate for a friend. Together they’re sent to a remote Ugandan village (Price was hoping for Orlando, Fla.).
In Uganda, Scott Pask’s set morphs into a darker world of ominous skies and broken down huts. A villager casually crosses the stage dragging a life size, bloody donkey carcass. After presenting themselves to some of the leading natives, Price and Cunningham join a group of other young missionaries stationed in the village. They learn that things aren’t going too well, religious conversions aren’t happening. It seems that the understandably jaded local population, tired from dealing with AIDS, forced female genital mutilation and a threatening violent warlord, has little time for far out Bible stories.
Undaunted, Price is determined to do something incredible. But surprisingly, it’s less-than-promising Cunningham, not Price, who connects with the native population. He strikes up a romance with local girl Nabulungi (the sweet and sexy Samantha Marie Ware), and with her help, peddles a watered down version of Mormonism filled with references from his favorite science fiction and fantasy films, and wins loads of converts.
With the creators of “South Park,” nothing is sacred. In the second act’s “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” Price sees his father having hot sex with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Then there’s casual talk of raping babies as a cure for AIDS. One villager routinely complains, “I have maggots in my scrotum.” Yes, it’s a little offensive and very foulmouthed, but it’s also big-hearted and admirably executed.
As Price, sterling-voiced Evans gives a nuanced performance, ably conveying his character’s big ego as well as his decency and likeability. Evans’ stirring rendition of “I Believe” is one of the show’s more memorable moments. And though not as musically blessed as Evans, O’Neill (making his professional debut as Cunningham) oozes comic ability.
Smartly, the show’s creators use musical theater elements including heartrending ballads and big song and dance numbers (delightfully choreographed by co-director Casey Nicholaw) to poke fun. Grey Henson is terrific as the closeted Elder McKinley who likes to think that suppressing his gayness is as simple as turning off a light switch. He and the other Mormons sing about it in a fabulous tap-filled number titled “Turn it Off.”
With “The Guardsman” and “Anything Goes,” the Kennedy Center has been on a roll. And now with “The Book of Mormon,” that winning streak continues for the big boxy landmark on the Potomac.