The Book of Mormon, which opened Thursday at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, anchors the 2012-2013 Broadway series just as it is an anchor on the Great White Way itself. The show has been praised and scorned for the never before seen level of politically incorrect humor. Not only that, but creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez do not apologize for the debauchery. But with catchy music, strong performances, and a heart of gold, The Book of Mormon is hard to resist.
The Tony Award winner for Best Musical tells the story of two young Mormons whose mission location is Uganda rather than magical Orlando as one of them had so desperately hoped. Elders Price and Cunningham are a mismatched pair with divergent expectations for the mission. Elder Price desperately wants to please the other elders and believes he will be able to bring new members to the church. Elder Cunningham, on the other hand, thinks the mission will finally give him a best friend in the reluctant Elder Price. Of course, finding interested converts in war torn Uganda is not an as easy a task as either of them thinks, and hilarity ensues. The plot follows a typical trajectory. The idea of a throwing a pair of opposites into an uncomfortable situation is about as unique an idea for a musical as pairing peanut butter and jelly. And yet, The Book of Mormon does it so well and the beliefs of the Mormons are unique enough that the plot feels fresh and well thought out.
While the plot is simple enough, the songs come with lyrics that are tongue twisting and chock full of lengthy passages about Mormonism. "All-American Prophet" manages to condense the entire history of the Mormon religion into a four-minute song. "Two By Two," in which the elders learn of their mission location, pokes fun at stereotypes about Japan, France, and even Norway. Even with the complexity of the lyrics and storytelling devices within the songs, most of them are incredibly catchy. One of the songs sure to stick in your head is "Turn It Off," a hilarious tap routine about a "nifty little Mormon trick" for suppressing inconvenient thoughts. Paired with the complicated music is choreography that is fast and furious. The Book of Mormon is one of only a few recent musicals that is heavy on dance. The entire cast delivers the fancy footwork in step and with an enthusiasm that never reveals how hard it is to energetically sing and dance at the same time.
In addition to being excellent singers and dancers, all of the performers are talented actors as well. At the opening night performance, Cody Jamison Strand, the standby, was on for Elder Cunningham and he was fantastic. Jamison's sense of comedic timing is flawless and he imbues Elder Cunningham with a goofy innocence that the audience cannot resist. With his carved cheekbones and expertly coiffed hair, Mark Evans is perfectly cast as the straight-laced Elder Price. In addition to looking the part, Evans convincingly portrays Elder Price as a person whose devotion to the church is unquestionable. With a smile plastered on his face and confidence in his voice, when Evans belts "I Believe" no one questions his commitment to the church even if he believes God lives on his own planet. In addition to fantastic performers in the leading roles, the entire supporting cast is fantastic, but Grey Henson stands out. Henson nearly steals the show in multiple roles as Elder Cross, Elder McKinley and the angel Moroni. As Elder McKinley, Henson shines while leading "Turn It Off," where he is over the top by just the right amount.
When The Book of Mormon debuted it was almost instantly tagged as the dirty musical that makes fun of Mormons. And yes, there are some very questionable segments. And yes, Mormonism is satirized in a way that seems as though Mormons are being held up to ridicule. However, Mormonism could easily be swapped out for any religion. The Book of Mormon is a commentary on all organized religions and how they affect the behavior and the worldview of devoted followers, Mormonism is the placeholder in this situation. The baudy humor, while certainly not taken to this level in musical theater history, is not a new invention either. What is so remarkable about The Book of Mormon, and what makes it irresistible, is not the crude language or risqué subject matter but the fact that when you strip away all that shocks and offends, the show is about as traditional a musical as you will find playing today. The show wins you over with hummable melodies, incredible dancing, and a story of two likeable chums who find themselves in a bad situation and have to find their way out. You can probably think of at least a dozen shows that follow that same convention. The Book of Mormon deserves respect for finding a way to articulate that familiar story with a different premise and in a different context.