Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
When: through Sept. 8
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I’ve been trying to figure out what has made “The Book of Mormon” such a phenomenal hit.
Sure, the multiple-award-winning musical with book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone is a clever, funny send-up with a raft of catchy songs and production numbers that spoof enough shows (“The Lion King” and “A Chorus Line” among them) to be an incarnation of “Forbidden Broadway.” But that doesn’t account for the near-cult following it has inspired, which was epitomized by the waves of hilarity sweeping the audience and the standing ovation for the opening night launch of the Second National Tour at the Bank of America Theatre.
The production itself, my initiation into “Mormon,” didn’t provide the answer, but it did dissipate much of my skepticism (prompted by all the advance hype). While anyone with a religious upbringing may simply enjoy the take down of a sacred cow, accomplished with plenty of sex and scatology, there seems to be a deeper purpose here.
By treating serious subjects ranging from racial prejudice to genital mutilation with humor, even irreverently, “The Book of Mormon” actually underscores the importance of finding solutions. Rather than being an indictment of Mormonism, it’s more of an examination of culture clash and how people from two radically different cultures can find a common ground. It’s not anti religion, and certainly not anti faith, but it definitely is anti-authoritarian, whether the authority is the church hierarchy or a brutal general. Smug practitioners also get their comeuppance — but not without compassion.
The self-satisfied, rule-following young Mormon at the center of the story is Elder Price (Nic Rouleau), who dreams of being sent as a missionary to Orlando, Fla., but instead is assigned to Northern Uganda with Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt), a perennial screw-up given to lying, as his companion/best friend for the two-year-long posting. Needless to say, their introduction to this impoverished world plagued by disease and terrorized by a General (David Aron Damane) whose name can’t be printed in a family newspaper is a rude shock and tests their forced friendship to the breaking point. Not surprisingly, they learn from their fellow missionaries, led by Elder McKinley (Pierce Cassedy), that not a single soul in the village has been baptized.
The head of the village is Mafala (Chicago’s own James Vincent Meredith, bringing some depth to the role), whose daughter Nabulungi (Syesha Mercado, a late replacement) takes a shine to Elder Cunningham, despite the fact that he keeps mangling her name (Neutrogena, etc.) Their budding romance and Elder Price’s trauma-induced breakdown propel the plot, such as it is, but I found the throw-away bits — such as Nabulungi using an old typewriter to “text” her friends — among the most amusing.
The musical numbers carry much of the show’s weight, from the opening “Hello” with the clean-cut all-white Mormons ringing doorbells to spread the faith to the final reprise, a telling twist in a place where there are no doorbells. The sharpest swipes at Mormonism are “Turn It Off,” with Elder McKinley explaining how to repress any feelings that don’t adhere to the rules, and “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” with Elder Price imagining his fate for requesting a transfer and deserting his partner. “I Am Africa,” with the Americans singing to the Ugandans, is a pointed take-off on “We Are the World.” And the way the missionaries depict Joseph Smith to the Ugandans as the “All American Prophet” provides the set up for my favorite, “Joseph Smith American Moses,” Nabulungi and the villagers’ version of the story performed for the Mormon higher-ups in a brilliant satire of “The Little House of Uncle Thomas” from “The King and I.”
Although Casey Nicholaw’s choreography gets a little repetitious and some of the dancing was a little sloppy on opening night, the ensemble under his and Trey Parker’s direction is engaging. The style leans to cartoonish, but Platt’s performance turns Elder Cunningham into a fully rounded character with a delightfully quirky ability to adapt to his situation. When he throws his arms around Elder Price and declares his friendship, the gesture perfectly embodies the inherent sweetness of “The Book of Mormon” notwithstanding the vulgarity and any other indications to the contrary. And maybe that’s the key to its success.