December 7, 2019

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Book of Mormon silly and sacrilegious -- but smart and subversive, too

After winning nine Tonys and being the toast of Broadway and London’s West End, it’s safe to say The Book of Mormon is a known commodity.

Even those who haven’t seen it on the Great White Way, or who have never watched creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s long-running cartoon, the sacred-cow-tipping South Park, know that it is a profoundly profane musical, filled with language that has appalled theatre matrons from Peoria to Nantucket.

Billy Harrigan Tighe as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon

JOHAN PERSSON

Billy Harrigan Tighe as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon

So what’s really shocking about The Book of Mormon, which is making its Winnipeg debut at the Centennial Concert Hall to March 22, is how conventional it is. Wedged in among the unprintable song lyrics and the unspeakable acts is a sweet, even inspirational story about friendship and loyalty, about being good to one another, and about the power of non-doctrinal religion. And that story is conveyed via show-stopping songs and glitzy, choreographed production numbers — in other words, it’s a good old-fashioned musical.

That’s not to say there aren’t more than a few "Did they actually just say that?" and many more "Did I actually just laugh at that?" moments in the 2 1/2-hour (with intermission) comedy. But mostly, the audience is swept along on a giddy wave of sly wit, broad humour, wonderful performances and hummable melodies that hearken back to the golden age of musicals... but with poop jokes.

The story follows two freshly minted Mormon missionaries, Elder Cunningham and Elder Price, to northern Uganda, where they must attempt to convert villagers who have more important things on their minds than religion: AIDS, poverty and a murderous warlord set on circumcising all the women, to name but a few.

Hijinks and blasphemy ensue.

It’s been suggested that sensitive viewers should check their political correctness at the door, but Parker, Stone and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), who all co-wrote the book, music and lyrics, aren’t Seth MacFarlane. They’re not interested in scattershot insults or lazy stereotypes and they’re deft at turning audience expectation on its head.

Of course, Book takes numerous potshots at the more mockable tenets of the Mormon faith. Every religion has them, but hearing the contention that the Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Mo., put to song adds an undeniable sheen of ridiculousness.

It’s all surprisingly gentle, however — even the most overt railing against a vengeful god (the untranslatable Hasa Diga Eebowai) has its sentiments cloaked in a sunny song and exuberant dance.

Believers might find it most offensive that Jesus, whose unearthly glow comes courtesy of Christmas lights sewn into his robe, sounds eerily like South Park’s Cartman (Trey Parker supplies his voice).

As the hapless Elder Cunningham, A.J. Holmes has delightfully dorky body language and a powerful voice, though it sometimes veers into a bray. He wins most of the laughs, but Billy Harrigan Tighe, as the confident Elder Price, has more polish and pizzazz, and brings real pathos to his performance as a missionary laid low by failure and guilt.

Understudy Dayna Jarae Dantzler acquits herself well as village girl Nabulungi, especially during Baptize Me, the bawdy, innuendo-filled duet with Holmes.

The set, designed by Scott Pask, is framed in colourful stained-glass spires meant to evoke the Salt Lake Temple, home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They stand in stark contrast to the brown and ochre tones of the Ugandan village and, in one scene, the red, fiery pits of hell.

Some of the Ugandan characters’ come-and-go accents are distracting — perhaps one shouldn’t expect authenticity, but consistency would be nice — and the book is mostly a let’s-move-this-story-along affair.

But the songs are the heart and soul of Book of Mormon. The ensemble numbers, accompanied by a live band and choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw, are riotously funny, from Turn It Off, about suppressing sinful inclinations ("When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head/Don’t feel those feelings/hold them in instead!" to Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, which features Elder Price being tormented by pitchfork-wielding demons and dancing skeletons in the play’s most gloriously spoofy production number.

The Book of Mormon sometimes goes for the low-hanging fruit (and you can take that as a double-entendre if you wish). It’s often infantile, occasionally puerile. It’s silly and sacrilegious, but it’s also smart, subversive and so much fun. It’s pure pleasure — nothing guilty about it.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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History

Updated on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at 12:31 PM CDT: Fixed typo in headline.

12:42 PM: Fixes typo.

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