Oct. 31--"The Book of Mormon" isn't about Mormons.
Well, technically, yes, the hit Broadway musical is about two missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And it does devote much time explaining its history and ideology.
But, in many ways, the Mormon church's story and culture is simply a tool to view faith in a larger context for the musical.
"The Book of Mormon" looks at the often strange and outlandish stories that make up religious practices and tries to balance them against the real world good that faith in a higher power can bring to people every day. It's a complicated equation that is further muddied by the vehicle it is delivered in: A hilarious, raunchy and completely original musical the likes of which hasn't been seen on Broadway in years.
Like any great work, it entertains first and sparks thought afterwards. It doesn't hurt that this show, which runs through most of November in Denver, is endlessly watchable.
"The Book of Mormon" was written by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker with help from Robert Lopez, who brought the equally hilarious "Avenue Q" to Broadway. It opened in 2011, winning nine Tony awards, including best musical.
Denver had the honor of hosting the first national tour performances in 2012, and it's the first stop on the 2013 tour, which features new and returning cast members and runs parallel to Broadway and international tours.
The story follows Elder Kevin Price, a devout and handsome missionary, and Elder Arnold Cunningham, a nerdy and excitable missionary prone to exaggeration. The two are paired up at the Missionary Training Center in Utah before being sent to Africa for their two-year mission.
This little introduction with the songs "Hello," built on the music of cascading doorbells as the missionaries practice cold calls, and "Two By Two", a wild dance number, set the tone for the whole show: wild, witty and definitely Broadway.
After landing, they discover the Mormon teachings have little to no value to people who live in fear of warlords, suffer from AIDS and endure deep poverty. In fact, their district has yet to convert a single person, and many of their elder brothers are struggling with personal issues.
From there, the question for the duo becomes, "What are we even doing here?"
It's an interesting mesh of odd-couple dynamics, coming-of-age story and clash of cultures. All of these are handled through big Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-style song and dance numbers that will be stuck in your head long after your car is back in its driveway -- because not only are they original and funny, they are crucial to the story. In an era of jukebox musicals and movies made into plays, that is something to take notice of.
The idea of a musical done by the guys from "South Park" shouldn't strike anyone as odd. The pair have regularly tackled musical numbers in the TV show and their two largest movies, "Team America: World Police" and "South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut," were both in the genre, with the latter earning an Oscar nomination for its song, "Blame Canada."
"The Book of Mormon" definitely inherits the surreal and dark humor of those films and "South Park." It looks at the religion with the eye of an atheist, amused with the strange story it tells and the gaps in logic it asks its followers to believe. At the same time, it longs to understand the sense of faith and fulfillment that religion can provide impressed with how it can make people better.
Parker calls his play "an atheist's love letter to religion," and I can't think of a better way to describe it. It's a complicated musical that is also innovative and fun, which speaks to its ongoing popularity with a cross section of people, most of which are not affiliated or know nothing about the church.
It's certainly worth the time and cost of attendance, if only to ask yourself the same questions while having a good laugh.
(c)2013 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.)
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