‘Book of Mormon’ is worthy of all its hype — and then some

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

What’s so funny about religion?

Practically everything when you look at it through the eyes of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, best known for their Comedy Central series South Park. Teamed with composer/lyricist Robert Lopez, they took Broadway by storm in 2011 with The Book of Mormon, an affectionately irreverent musical about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The play racked up nine Tony Awards, along with most of the others. It’s broken box office records in New York, Los Angeles, London and Sydney, as well as numerous cities in between.

The original Broadway cast album of the show is the highest charting such recording in four decades.

Wrapped in such ribbons of hype, the Broadway national touring production of Mormon finally arrived at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts this week. This polished, energetic version of the mega-hit managed to impress despite the high expectations.

The story revolves around Elders Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham, who are sent on a mission — a Mormon rite of passage for males between high school and college — to Uganda. Transplanting the lily white, suburban Salt Lake City lambs to AIDS-devastated, war-lord oppressed Uganda is the perfect setup for a classic fish-out-of-water comedy. Throw in some catchy, instantly familiar music, brazenly clever lyrics, a twirling, tap-dancing chorus line of gay-ish Mormon boys in white shirts and black ties, and the occasional appearance of an African man proclaiming, “I have maggots in my scrotum,” and you get the general picture.

But this finely honed play transcends the set-up, asking profound metaphysical questions about the nature of faith and the leap of logic required to maintain it.

Elder Price (played by David Larsen on Wednesday night in the first act, but replaced by Ryan Bondy in the second), is a budding Mormon star.  Popular and pious, he completed missionary training at the top of his class. He’s prayed to be assigned to his favorite place in the world — Orlando, Fla. — but Holy Father has other plans for him.

Elder Cunningham (Chad Burris) is Price’s polar opposite. Pudgy, friendless and prone to spinning fanciful yarns, he’s never even read the Book of Mormon. He hopes his missionary service will redeem him in the eyes of his disappointed father.

When the two opposites are teamed up for the trek to Uganda, the play veers into bromance territory. Cunningham thinks he’s finally found a best friend, while Price believes he can reform his floundering nebbish of a partner while saving Africans’ souls.

The birth of the duo’s friendship is celebrated in the song “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” in which Price channels his inner Gaston as he sings about the great things the two will accomplish together, thanks mostly to him.

It’s a funny, insightful song that typifies the show’s hilariously cynical musical numbers. Highlights of the playlist include “Turn It Off,” which explains how Mormons deal with upsetting feelings, such as one missionary’s homosexual longings. In “Man Up,” Cunningham buoys his confidence to preach solo after Price falls apart. The musical’s showstopper, if you can single out one, is “Spooky Mormon Hell,” which takes Price to an underworld where he’s sodomized and tormented by the likes of Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Genghis Khan, while evil spirits cavort around with cups of Starbucks coffee (Mormons consider caffeine consumption to be a sin).

By the end of the play, Cunningham has converted an entire village by recreating The Book of Mormon for his Ugandan audience, much as Paul recreated Judaism to make it more saleable to the pagans. In Cunningham’s version of the Mormon story, the Angel Moroni descends to Earth from the starship Enterprise, and humans are admonished to cure themselves of AIDS by having intercourse with frogs. Heaven, of course, is a place called Salt Lake City.

The most inventive number of the play is the villagers’ unexpected presentation of Cunningham’s version of The Book of Mormon to visiting LDS officials. The number is classic Parker-Stone fare, with a chorus line graphically suffering from dysentery.

The officials promptly order all of the missionaries to return home, but they defiantly decide to stay and continue their work. Their converts understand what they had missed all along — that stories in holy books are symbolic — not meant to be taken literally. Led by the Africans’ wisdom, everyone realizes that heaven is not Salt Lake City but rather a place inside their souls. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for fundamentalist adherents of all faiths.

The mostly young actors in the touring production are universally flawless. There’s not a missed dance step, a flubbed punch line or an off-pitch tone among them. The choreography is fresh and very athletic.

The standout in this cast of standouts is golden-voiced Candace Quarrels as Nabulungi, a beautiful young woman of the village. Her innocence and longing for something to believe in provide a human connection with the audience amid all the antics. With grace and charm, she grounds the play in its meaning.

The Tony Award winning sets by Scott Pask are relatively simple but serviceable and they easily accommodate a cast that seems literally to be about the size of a small village.

Despite the comically shocking situations and edgy lyrics and dialogue, this is an old-fashioned musical in style, laced with homages to musicals from Broadway’s golden era that seasoned audience members will recognize. The Book of Mormon is one of the most entertaining shows you’re ever likely to see. This is one that you’ll regret missing.

On stage

The Book of Mormon continues at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., through May 31. For tickets, go to marcuscenter.org. You can enter a lottery for $25 tickets on the day of performance.