The Book of Mormon (2017) – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

In recent years, standing ovations have become standard practice in valley theatres, handed out like free samples, even with mediocre productions less deserving of them. With The Book of Mormon, 2015 audiences at ASU Gammage in Tempe were cheering and leaping to their feet long before the show was over, often at the conclusion of some of the songs. This is not altogether unusual with Gammage audiences who love to show their enthusiasm to a visiting production, but with The Book of Mormon, there was a constant, practical gladiatorial feel to the house, every night.

With just one season to separate visits, the musical returned last week, and it came on press-night with hand-written notices taped to the box-office lobby doors notifying that the evening’s performance was full. Having seen not only the previous visit to Tempe, but subsequent versions of the show before the tour, it’s safe to announce that the musical remains the same exuberant, hilarious, fast-moving production that came to town two years ago with little or no changes in its telling and no visible cutbacks on production values. Though perhaps there is one thing to note, other than the expected cast changes.

The show actually seems to possess more energy than it did before. It’s as if everything and everyone was given a shot of adrenaline with an extra shot for the heck of it, resulting with an even faster-paced and slightly broader version than the one remembered. This current tour began in Chicago, then after a run that lasted almost 11 months in the one theatre, it took to the road. The Book of Mormon arrived in Tempe last week and continues until Sunday, May 28. It could probably stay longer.

As mentioned in this column before when the show first came to town, those two bad boys behind TV’s South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who teamed with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez to write the musical’s script, might possibly have read the fascinating investigative account of the Mormon faith as revealed in the 2003 Jon Krakauer book Under The Banner of Heaven. From the perspective of outsiders, the book was one of the first to document in such detail the origins of the Mormon Church. There were things revealed that perhaps were never known to those outside the church. And in some cases, there were things revealed but kept from those within the church; after all, the book’s subtitle is A Story of Violent Faith. Once the work was released, it was later in that same year when South Park presented an episode called All About Mormons, incorporating elements that happened to be disclosed in Karakauer’s compelling chronicle.

For those who have yet to see the musical, the show revolves around the notion that there is no time in a young Mormon boy’s life more important than the two-year commitment for missionary work, whether it be within the United States or overseas. (For the record, it was two female missionaries that once knocked on my door, but the show is concerned with young males only.)

After a brief introduction in “Ancient, Upstate New York,” a parody of the Hill Cumorah Pageant performed annually in Palmyra, New York, audiences are brought up to date with the church’s foundation. Then we’re off to the Missionary Training Center, Room 7B, in Utah where a class-full of hopefuls rehearse their doorbell ringing technique in an attempt to encourage conversion. As with the whole score, the introductory number Hello is a bright, tuneful, and immediately catchy song with lyrics both witty and extremely clever, containing its own, built-in, big finish harmony, the kind that practically demands applause. Listen to the original cast recording with songs back to back and you’ll notice that all of them have the same construction; big, brash, arms-wide-open finishes. Try not applauding. It can’t be done. They’re designed that way.

For his missionary work, the somewhat pious though popular, all-American boy with the million dollar smile, Elder Kevin Price (Gabe Gibbs, playing the role broader, though funnier than usual) has prayed to God that he be sent to Orlando, land of theme parks, Sea World and Putt-Putt Golfing, but evidently God was busy listening elsewhere that day. By the booming, off-stage voice, fashioned after the late Rod Roddy of “Come on down!” fame from The Price is Right, Elder Price is awarded Uganda, Africa. To make matters doubly worse for the visibly disappointed missionary, the young man is teamed with the slovenly and desperate-to-please classroom doofus, Elder Arnold Cunningham (the very funny Conner Pierson). Arnold, it turns out, has several issues, and two really bad ones. One: he’s never actually read the Book of Mormon, and two: he lies a lot. But he does have enthusiasm, and when told he’s going to Africa, he declares, “Oh, boy. Like The Lion King,” land of disease, brutality, murderous war lords and huts with no air-conditioning.

You can just imagine those two South Park writers rolling around the room in fits of laughter, slapping the floor with their hands when they came up with the idea of sending two idealistic, whiter than white but green-in-the-gills, Mormon missionaries to Uganda. As Elder Price sings with unwavering conviction in the comically inspirational song with the big finish, I Believe, it wasn’t until 1978 that God changed his mind about black people. For the Mormon church, Uganda was, generally speaking, uncharted territory. The mere idea of sending Elders Price and Cunningham to Darkest Africa where the dilapidated village huts have no doorbells to ring is the best joke in the show.

As before, the touring production brings its own proscenium arch designed to appear like a construction of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, complete with the angel Moroni perched at the top (obstructed from view for some audience members by a large, hanging speaker) and glimpses of the solar system, including, presumably, the planet Kolob, which in Mormon faith is the heavenly body nearest to the seat of God. According to Richard Bushman, professor of Mormon Studies, the planet Kolob is not doctrinally accurate, but is does have roots in Mormon belief. For the record, it’s also the name of the studio in Los Angeles where The Osmonds recorded their ‘73 album inspired by Mormon beliefs, The Plan.

For the benefit of those who are still unaware of the show’s content but are curious enough to want to see The Book of Mormon – and you should; it’s genuinely hilarious – keep in mind that it might shock. No, correction: it will shock. But as this column noted before when the musical was here in 2015, it’s the kind of shock that inspires big laughs, depending on your sense of humor. But the thing is, from all the advance words, you must know going in that even though the opening lines to I Believe have a couple of sly nods to Julie Andrews singing I Have Confidence, The Sound of Music this is not. And it’s not Mary Poppins, either. If you know this and you still leave offended, the question you should be asked is, why did you go?

Pictures courtesy of Joan Marcus

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