The Book of Mormon: Striking Songs, Great Sets, and Above All, Irreverence

The set-up:

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. As 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 the controversy has been largely muted by the wisdom of Mormon elders in being cool themselves, taking out ads in the show's program reading "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".

The execution: This is most definitely an elaborate production, 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", as we see missionary trainees practicing their approach to potential candidates for conversion to the Mormon Church - it is bright and cheerful, and positions them as corporate upward-strivers, physically fit, largely interchangeable, with each cut from the same cookie-dough as another - except for Elder Cunningham, who enters late, 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 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"Sal Tlay Ka Siti" (Salt Lake City).

While the seriously over-staffed 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 paying 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 is 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, as the lyrics are primarily a repetition of the title, but delivered with such ebullient aplomb that it is both deeply moving and admirably amusing. Here, and elsewhere as well, we sense the hand of master craftsmen at work.

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, they had considerable wit, if one gets past irreverent portrayals of Jesus Christ and other religious figures.

The excellent set, by Scott Pask, is warm and inviting, with some rich sky projections, and the set changes work quickly and almost invisibly; letting us see why it won its Tony. I liked less well the choreography, by Casey Nicolaw, though it received a Tony nomination. There is a lot of "flight attendant" hand waving in the air, and booty-shaking, and so much energetic movement that activity alone could be masking a lack of invention. On the other hand, "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" may be too inventive for its own good, including in it even the Star Wars Yodo. But this is like complaining about a fly at the annual church picnic - the feast is still there to be savored.

Despite having the same creators, The Book of Mormon is very different from South Park, which is a series of brilliant parables, sharply-drawn, and with incisive understanding of the foibles of human nature. Then opening scenes here are largely frivolous - they have no soul and little heart, contributing instead much broad humor. But human warmth creeps in with the villagers, and the threads of plot and are fused skillfully into a moral compass that is adroit and valuable, and its final message, delivered with wit and generosity of spirit, made us glad we shared a rich and rewarding experience.

The verdict:

An award-winning musical comedy pays off with broad humor, striking songs, a talented cast, inviting sets, and a remarkable drive that seizes us by the throat and, thankfully, won't let go. You know it's on your to-do-list; see it!

The Book of Mormon continues 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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