News Column

Theater review: 'The Book of Mormon'

October 31, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 31--Thank God.

Broadway hit "The Book of Mormon" has arrived in Orlando with a production that, saints be praised, is as much a thrill as the original.

Of course, the carefully plotted story, rip-roaring musical numbers and witty lyrics remain the same. (Naturally, the shout-outs to O-town are crowd pleasers -- even if they aren't always flattering.) But the production values -- often scaled down for a touring show -- also remain intact, from the shrewdly colorful costumes to the surprisingly effective scenic design.

Written by "South Park" masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone and "Avenue Q" co-creator Robert Lopez, the musical triumphantly achieves what should be impossible. It mixes a serious musing on the role of religion in today's world with adolescent humor, flamboyantly choreographed production numbers, classic Broadway storytelling and a sharply funny script suitable for an R-rated movie.

In short, it's a theater miracle.

The story follows two mismatched missionaries sent to Uganda. There, they learn it will be a lot harder than they thought to win converts.

The script's vulgarity doesn't sit well with some theatergoers, but a key aspect of the show's brilliance is how that crude veneer takes the edge off a sentimental core. This is a story, after all, about friendship and belief, growing up and learning to overcome your faults.

The writers also play tricks with characterizations. At first, it might seem the audience is being encouraged to laugh at the show's Africans. But it soon becomes clear, much like with the show's depiction of gays, that the butt of the joke is really clueless Americans -- possibly some in the audience -- and their skewed perceptions.

This becomes most obvious late in the show when the white, middle-class American missionaries sing with utter sincerity "We are Africa." (Among the song's comic absurdities, the men compare themselves to the "dream of Nelson Mandela.")

And the show's take on religion -- which is not aimed solely at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- targets those who are obsessed with rules and literal interpretation of stories from long ago. Instead, the show suggests almost sweetly, why not channel that fervor into making the world a better place?

The actors do much to sell the inspired silliness. Leading lady Samantha Marie Ware has a sweet, innocent quality but the necessary fire in her spirit as Nabulungi, a hopeful African. As Elder Cunningham, the screw-up of the main missionaries, Christopher John O'Neill makes every vocal choice count for maximum comic effect. He makes a stock character -- the awkward misfit -- believably real.

Mark Evans' Elder Price isn't as blithely self-centered as some portrayals. Evans' Price is more tightly wound than youthfully cocksure, and he never comes as unglued as he could during a crisis of faith. But Evans has the requisite million-watt smile and an appealing loose-limbed dancing style.

With all that the "Book of Mormon" creators have packed into this show, there's one other inspired element: The show is a love letter to Broadway. Musical-theater buffs can enjoy the homages to "The King and I," "Wicked," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and more.

If you miss those inside jokes, don't worry. This super-smart, funny, ultimately uplifting show gives pleasure enough.

'The Book of Mormon'

-- What: Broadway touring musical comedy

-- When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 10

-- Where: Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, 411 W. Livingston St., Orlando

-- Tickets: $45-$150

-- Call: 407-246-4262

-- Online: OrlandoBroadway.com

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