The Book of Mormon is an insanely funny theatrical experience that will leave audience members humming nutty tunes and laughing out loud at the extreme brilliance of it all.
Much has been said about the profanity and irreverence of the work, conceived by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone along with funnyman Robert Lopez, creator of the equally naughty Avenue Q. But The Book of Mormon has a true heart in its story of hope, dominated by an underlying sweetness that belies its over-the-top blasphemy.
Above all, this production at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre is super smart with wildly funny surprises at many a turn. The absurdity is the very thing that ultimately makes it so inoffensive.
Starring in this tale of Mormon missionary work are the fabulous Mark Evans as Elder Price and the idiotically funny Christopher John O’Neill as his puppy-dog sidekick, Elder Cunningham. They’ve been assigned to missionary work in Uganda, where they witness the harsh realities of villagers plagued by AIDS, drought and an abusive warlord.
The creators’ wild imaginations are personified through the chunky, dorky Cunningham, who’s so desperate to fit in, he resorts to making up outlandish stories about Mormonism in his attempts to convert the Ugandans. The Ugandans want to believe in something, and in Cunningham’s odd way, he is the only missionary who’s able to reach out to them exactly where they are in their difficult lives.
The story’s really about learning to reach outside of yourself and truly help others, no matter what their struggles may be.
Just looking at the tall, handsome Evans and the short, portly O’Neill together onstage induces giggles. These actors have a winsome chemistry. But Evans, who has quite the resume of leading-man roles in the United Kingdom, has a rich singing voice that blows away the average-at-best voice of O’Neill, which is at times pitchy.
The contrast in their vocal ability is too great. But O’Neill almost makes up for it with his goofy acting as a spastic, oversized man-boy. This actor, a comedian by trade, has a baby face with an openness that’s priceless.
The men in the Mormon missionary ensemble are excellent, led by Grey Henson as the repressed Elder McKinley. These squeaky-clean gentlemen — clad identically in their bright white shirts, dark pants and name tags — are cartoonish in their relentless cheerfulness, and that’s what makes them so wonderfully humorous.
Choreography by Casey Nicholaw is entertaining, especially when the missionaries’ song Turn It Off morphs into a dazzling tap number, Busby Berkeley-style.
Set designer Scott Pask creates marked contrast between the glorious image of the Salt Lake Temple and the nasty hovels of the Ugandans. Yet ever present is a colorful proscenium of stained glass.
This script can be crude but it’s never cynical, as the characters on stage wholeheartedly believe in everything they’re saying and doing. For instance, Price’s Spooky Mormon Hell Dream is his true personal version of hell, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to us.
Parker, Lopez and Stone both satirize musical theater and pay loving homage to it in The Book of Mormon, which has an old-fashioned construction. Musical theater enthusiasts will enjoy the clever riffs on other shows, ranging from Hasa Diga Eebowai, a devilish take on The Lion King that’s performed with utter glee, to delightfully clever allusions to Wicked and The Sound of Music.
My favorite musical number is the Ugandans’ Joseph Smith American Moses pageant — an outrageous spin on The Small House of Uncle Thomas from The King and I.
Among the Ugandans, Samantha Marie Ware is sincerely sweet as Nabulungi, who yearns for a better life. She shares a duet with O’Neill in the sexual tension-ridden Baptize You, which O’Neill pulls off with aplomb.
The Book of Mormon has been heralded as the hottest ticket in town this year in Cleveland, and it thoroughly deserves the reputation that precedes it. Those lucky enough to get seats to this gem will be laughing about it for a long time to come.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.