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The Book of Mormon Has Heart, Even If It Does Aim to Offend

However much designed to offend, The Book of Mormon delivers human warmth along with its calculated irreverence.

The Book of Mormon has been an audience favorite, often selling out on Broadway, an artistic success (winning nine Tony Awards), and a triumphant investment, coming in under budget and recovering its cost in an unheard-of 11 months. The Broadway production pioneered aggressive but fair pricing innovations, raising prices up to $477 at moments of peak demand. After the Tony Awards, the cast album became the highest-charting Broadway cast album in four decades.

The Book of Mormon is by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone are the creators of television's animated comedy South Park, and Lopez is the co-composer and co-lyricist of the Broadway hit Avenue Q. Since it's a satire upon an established religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often shortened to the Mormon Church), controversy might have been expected, but it has been largely muted by the wisdom of Mormon elders in being cool themselves, taking out ads in the show's program saying, "The book is always better."

The Book of Mormon comes trailing such clouds of glory, it's almost as though "Someone Up There Liked It."

Elder Price (Mark Evans) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) get a sendoff from a neighbor (Phyre Hawkins).
Joan Marcus
Elder Price (Mark Evans) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) get a sendoff from a neighbor (Phyre Hawkins).

Location Info

Map

Hobby Center for the Performing Arts

800 Bagby St.
Houston, TX 77002

Category: Music Venues

Region: Downtown/ Midtown

Details

The Book of Mormon

Through September 15 at the Hobby Center, from Broadway at the Hobby, 800 Bagby. For information or ticketing, call 713-315-2525 or contact houston.broadway.com.

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The production that has come to Houston courtesy of Gexa Energy Broadway is most definitely elaborate, with no signs of the diminishing of values that sometimes accompanies touring shows. The principals are heavily experienced, the sets are witty and textured, the costumes colorful, and the pace is brisk, so brisk in fact that the word "unrelenting" came to mind after viewing Act One. And then, in Act Two, in "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," the pace became even more frenetic. But the insistent drive works wonderfully, giving us no time to think as we are hurtled into a world of missionaries, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to make their sale.

The opening number is "Hello," in which we see missionary trainees practicing their approach to potential candidates for conversion to the Mormon Church. It's bright and cheerful and positions them as corporate upward-strivers, physically fit and largely interchangeable, with each cut from the same cookie dough as the others — except for Elder Cunningham, who enters late, and is clumsy, overweight and — we soon learn — prone to overusing a fervent imagination not necessarily linked to truth. Thereby hangs the tale.

The missionaries are dressed in black trousers, white shirts and black ties, and I remain puzzled as to why they all seemed like parodies of a gay male flight attendant; there seemed enough helium in their heels to float a dirigible. I get the joke, since the Latter-day Saints frown upon homosexuality, but since it runs throughout the show, it ends up seeming heavy-handed in such a sprightly endeavor. The opening number is reprised as the show ends, in a brilliant switch that is hilarious, witty and delightful.

The book is refreshing in that the handsome would-be hero, Elder Price, turns out to be self-centered to a fault, while his sidekick, the nerdish Elder Cunningham, turns out to have heroic, though seriously misguided, qualities. Mark Evans plays Price, and is convincing and energetic and manages to be likable despite portraying an uptight ass in a script that gives him little range. Christopher John O'Neill plays Cunningham, and reminded me of a young Lou Costello. He creates a vivid portrait of an inventive outcast, struggling for acceptance but fired with the force of a desperate need. He is wonderful, his body language is expressive and very amusing, and he carries the show on his pudgy shoulders.

These two are paired and sent to Uganda for their missionary work. The natives are considerably more three-dimensional than the missionaries, but they reside in a pragmatic world rather than an idealistic one. Samantha Marie Ware plays Nabulungi, daughter of a local chieftain, and she is beautiful and charming and sings with a voice that can break your heart in her longing for a different life in "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" (Salt Lake City).

While the seriously overstaffed mission in Uganda has not had a single convert, Cunningham strikes pay dirt as he embellishes the story of the Book of Mormon with his own wild and engrossingly interesting imagination — intercourse with a frog as a panacea plays a significant part here. The newly minted success of the mission leads to a congratulatory visit from Elder McKinley (Grey Henson), who is welcomed by the converted Ugandans presenting a pageant of the history of Mormonism — as vividly invented by Cunningham, complete with elaborate fake penises and a frog playing an important part. While it pays some homage to the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" scene from The King and I, this pageant is such fun, so enthusiastically performed by the villagers, so wildly extravagant and yet so convincing that it rises to the level of high art — though fall-on-the-floor high art. The visiting Elders excommunicate the misinformed converts, but the script gets even better here, as it piles surprise on surprise and turns apparent defeat into heart-warming triumph.

The songs are all good, and many strikingly so. Evans delivers "I Believe" with a verve and excitement that are breathtaking. He and O'Neill have a comic tour de force in "I Am Here for You," with a later reprise even better, as Cunningham welcomes Price as his best friend, in a distinctly one-sided relationship. And the final reprise of 'Hello" is simply amazing; the lyrics are primarily a repetition of the title but delivered with such ebullient aplomb that it's both deeply moving and admirably amusing. Here, and elsewhere as well, we sense the hand of master craftsmen at work.

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1 comments
adamsjohn1202
adamsjohn1202

"There are a series of brief skits, designed to offend, about how the Book of Mormon came to be, and while these struck me as unnecessary"

The idea that the skits they were created deliberately " to offend" is simply incorrect. The two skits (at the start of each Act) were used to give the audience a basic idea on the fundamentals of the Book of Mormon (the scripture). Most people haven't ever heard of the Nephites or the Lamanites, and they certainly don't know where they came from, what happened to them, or even how Joseph Smith came to find the plates which contained the records of these ancient people.  The point of the skit is to give the audience a quick and, yes, humorous overview of the complex subject. Otherwise, there would be plenty of parts of the musical that people would not get.  If you were actually offended, then I'm thinking it just flew over your head.

 
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