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‘The Book of Mormon’ is a distinctly modern musical

“The Book of Mormon” is one of the funniest and most profane shows to appear on a musical stage. Maybe that’s to be expected, considering it’s the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of “South Park,” working together with “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez. 

What’s unexpected about this Tony Award-sweeping hit, playing through Oct. 6 at Chicago’s Bank of America Theater, is the sometimes sweet Rogers and Hammerstein-style innocence that adds a novel dimension to the production.

The storyline is simple. Elder Price (Nic Rouleau) and Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt, see p. 38) have just graduated from Mormon missionary training.  They, along with the other new missionaries, eagerly await their assignments. Squeaky clean Price, a young go-getter probably voted most likely to succeed by his high school class, wants to do his mission work in Orlando, Fla. Fuzzy-headed bumbler Cunningham, probably voted least likely to even be noticed, is happy to go anywhere.

The pair ends up assigned to Uganda, which, they quickly discover, is nothing like the Africa of “The Lion King.”

Price and Cunningham join an existing Mormon mission – headed by closeted Elder McKinley (Pierce Cassidy) – that hasn’t baptized a single Ugandan. Their would-be converts live with crushing poverty, rampant AIDs and a local warlord (David Aron Damane) intent on circumcising every female in the village.

Price decides he will deliver the mission from its ineffectiveness, but it’s the bumbling Cunningham, with his “colorful” take on Mormon theology, who saves the day, so to speak. In his version of Mormonism, the prophet Joseph Smith is in the same league as Darth Vader and the Angel Moroni descended from the starship Enterprise. The natives find this brand of the religion far more appealing and approachable.

Despite its offbeat nature, “The Book of Mormon” plays like a classic musical. “Hello,” the show’s hilarious opening number, features a singing cadre of doorbell-ringing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries. They populate the stage with their traditional short-sleeved white shirts, conservative neckties and bright, eager smiles.

The 150-minute production ends on a similar note, with a host of numbers in between, including expressing the Ugandans’ longing to visit paradise in “Salta-Laka-City.”

Strong performances carry the show, and few are stronger than that of Ben Platt as Elder Cunningham. His buoyant naivety, sifted through a Bobcat Goldthwait-brand of psychosis, provides the perfect channel for his mixed-metaphor theology. 

As Price, Nic Rouleau offers a perfect, yet human blend of vanity and sanctity. He helps make the musical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” – complete with dancing demons, a four-armed Satan and familiar Hades denizens Hitler, Genghis Kahn, Johnny Cochran and Jeffrey Dahmer – a true show-stopper.

Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is simple but strong, and the show’s energy runs nonstop through to the traditional feel-good Broadway finish. But the profanity and irreverence make the production very non-traditional and decidedly adult fare.

“The Book of Mormon” successfully sets Parker and Stone’s uniquely sassy “South Park”-style humor to music, creating a distinctly 21st century work.

On the stage

“The Book of Mormon” plays through Oct. 6 at the Bank of America Theater, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago. For tickets, visit www.chicago-theater.com/theaters/bank-of-america-theater/the-book-of-mormon.php.