For a production that takes great pride in it’s shock value, The Book of Mormon is a far funnier and sweeter play than I was ever expecting. Sure, the hype would have you believe that you’ll go to Hell just for watching, but behind the blasphemy is a genuinely engaging and even emotional story. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park) are experts at walking that fine line between grossing you out and making you care about what it is that is grossing you out. But in all honesty, it’s really not even that offensive.
There’s really only one moment that might have gone too far, a musical number cursing God. In context, it feels completely appropriate considering the situation these characters find themselves in. However, the number just builds and builds to a point where you could feel the tension as so much of the audience was squirming behind the laughter. Other than that sequence, this is a production no more shocking than your standard R-Rated comedy. I suppose people could take offense at the religious backdrop of the story, but as a Mormon myself, I found the story to end up being more pro-faith than not.
Yes, they make fun of some of our beliefs, and even more specifically, the notion of blind faith. What they don’t do is insult those beliefs. It’s all played with what appears to be genuine respect for the church. The story itself revolves around two mismatched Mormon missionaries sent to Africa for their mission. One of them, Elder Price, is convinced that he is destined for something incredible, and plans to be one of the greatest missionaries ever. The other one, Elder Cunningham, is a slovenly, goofy “follower” who is seemingly incapable of fending for himself and has a penchant for lying when under pressure. When they get to Africa, they find themselves trapped in the middle of a tribal war, bringing out sides of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham that they never knew were in them.
In telling this story, there are a great variety of musical numbers. I have never been able to say this about a musical before, but I honestly loved each and every one of these songs. Covering several musical genres, each number is masterfully written and performed. This is a high energy show, beginning to end, and the cast gamely gives it their all. David Larsen and Cody Jamison Strand play the two lead Elders with such conviction that they feel like real people as they are thrown into some ridiculously over-the-top situations.
While the musical numbers are great, I really must emphasize the great writing across the board. There are genuinely funny jokes throughout, played with expert comic timing from a brilliant ensemble. Whether it’s the African’s depiction of “text messaging,” the unbelievable role that frogs end up playing in the story, or the antics of the closeted gay missionary, the laughs are non-stop. Beginning to end, this is one the most purely entertaining plays I’ve seen.
The production is amazing on the technical side as well. They manage to depict the poverty and misery of this village while keeping it visually interesting, and never depressing. The opening number is relatively minimalist, which makes it even more surprising when the world is opened up and we see just how much work went into designing everything. They even create Hell itself for one sequence, creating a depth on stage that just seemed to envelop the ensemble.
I really can’t emphasize this production enough. Whether religious or not, easily offended or not, there is no reason not to go into this with an open mind. It subverted all of my expectations, and has deserved all the accolades it has received. Running at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through May 25, this is a show you won’t want to miss.