It felt a long time coming – the first national tour began back in 2012 – but after repeated requests from season ticket holders and regular theatre-goes alike, it’s finally here. The comical musical satire, The Book of Mormon arrives at ASU Gammage in Tempe on a practical tidal wave of advance excitement and high expectations, accompanied by a fanfare louder than the angel Moroni’s golden trumpet, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Joining creative forces with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, the two guys behind South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone might have read the 2003 Jon Krakauer book Under the Banner of Heaven. From an outsiders point of view, it was one of the first to document in detail the origins and the suspect history of the Mormon Church. Plus, it explained who the angel Moroni was and how two objects known as the Urim and Thummim aided in the translation of the Latter Day Saint’s sacred text. It’s a fascinating read. Once the book made news, coincidence or not, in the same year, TV’s South Park soon had a controversial episode airing called All About Mormons.
After almost seven years in theatrical development, Parker, Stone and Lopez finally opened on Broadway in 2011, and the show is still going strong, not only in New York but also in London. There’s even an Australian production now in preparation for 2016. It’s a juggernaut and it can’t be stopped.
There’s no time in a young Mormon’s boy’s life more important than the two-year commitment for missionary work. After a brief though comically presented introduction to the church’s beginnings that takes place in “…Ancient, upstate New York,” we’re off to the Missionary Training Center in Utah where a class full of hopefuls are rehearsing their technique of ringing doorbells and declaring a friendly “Hello” in an attempt to encourage conversion to the ever-growing faith. Like most of the songs, Hello is bright, tuneful and immediately catchy with lyrics both clever and witty containing its own, built-in big-finish harmony that begs for applause. It’s a great beginning. In fact, most of the songs that follow are constructed that way; they all have those big, brash finishes demanding approval. Try not applauding; it can’t be done.
While the church sends it missionaries to all parts of the world – “Norway, land of gnomes and trolls,” “Japan, land of soy sauce and Mothra!” – our two leading players are awarded a two year stay in Uganda, a country that immediately messes up the missionary rehearsal of ringing doorbells – the dilapidated village huts don’t have them. Darkest Africa is also uncharted Mormon territory. As Elder Price states in the musically declarative I Believe, it wasn’t until 1978 that God changed his mind about black people. What He thought of them before, as quoted in the Book, is admittedly kind of embarrassing.
The devoted, handsome and somewhat pious Elder Kevin Price (Billy Harrigan Tighe, fresh from the London production) has prayed to God for Orlando, a place of Sea World, Disney and Putt-Putt Golfing, but his prayers are doubly shattered when first he’s teamed with the overly friendly doofus Elder Arnold Cunningham (A.J. Holmes, also from the London production) and second, he’s given an assignment so removed from his dreams of missionary glory that he can’t help but show his displeasure in front of everyone. Evidently, God wasn’t listening. On the other hand, his partner, the clueless Cunningham, takes the assignment with a different attitude. When told that Uganda is in Africa, the new missionary declares, “Africa. Oh, boy. Like Lion King!” The two men, armed only with luggage and a copy of their book, even get a Lion King send-off at the airport. “Good luck, boys,” declares the African-American performer at the conclusion of the airport Disney parody, “I’ve never been to Africa but I bet it’s a hoot.”
What follows makes up the bulk of the story; the boy’s luggage is stolen at gun point by threatening soldiers and the village they’re sent to is infested with poverty, famine and AIDS, plus there’s the constant threat of female circumcision as ordered by the local warlord general (Corey Jones) whose full name you’ll have to find out for yourself, but it’s based on a real life Liberian warlord called General Butt Naked, a man known for his extreme brutality but later actually converted to Christianity and preached.
Holmes and Tighe make a great double-act; one is the supercilious straight guy while the other is the comic relief. Those already familiar with the musical may feel an initial sense of concern upon seeing Holmes when he first makes his entrance. The character was developed by the somewhat rotund Josh Gad followed by the equally rotund Jared Gertner, and the character is often described as slovenly and overweight. Holmes is hardly overweight, but his aggressive comic delivery, his sharp timing, not to mention his overall disheveled appearance soon dispel any casting fears based on looks alone. He’s very funny and draws the audience in from the moment he makes his entrance in Hello, raises his copy of the book of Mormon for all to see and declares, “I have a free book written by Jesus!”
The touring company brings its own compact proscenium arch designed to appear like the construction of the Mormon Tabernacle, the angel Moroni perched at the top, while above we catch glimpses of the solar system and, presumably, the planet Kolob, which in Mormon faith is the heavenly body nearest to the seat of God. The overall look, particularly when the arch lights up, is highly effective.
Parker and Stone clearly love musicals and they have fun with the conventions of musical theatre, designing the songs in a way that reflects things we’ve already heard or references we easily recognize while infusing the colorful, upbeat score with their own spin.
Because of the excellent new sound system at Gammage, words are now easily determined, which is why the lyrics to the show’s hilarious though incredibly vulgar take on Hakuna Matata, here sung as Hasa Diga Eebowai, may shock. Correction; it will shock, there’s no may about it, but it’s the kind of shock that, depending on your sense of humor or, perhaps, tolerance, inspires big laughs. The press night audience practically leapt to its feet with wild applause at the song’s conclusion, and so will you. And it’ll be that way for the next three weeks, guaranteed, until November 8 when the show closes and the tour moves on. After all, you must know going in that from all the advance word, The Book of Mormon is neither The Sound of Music nor Mary Poppins. If you go with this in mind and you’re still offended, why did you go?
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammage, Tempe website.