Lakewood OH

‘Book of Mormon’ squeezes in laughs while examining faith

There are still some seats available for the long-awaited “Book of Mormon” at PlayhouseSquare. It’s the last in this season’s Broadway series. Winner of nine Tony Awards, “The Book of Mormon” has generated more excitement than any show I can remember at PlayhouseSquare.

The story sends two Mormon missionaries to Uganda to baptize the locals. Idealistic and eternally cheerful, they run into the poverty of Africa and the clash of Africans against Africans. All of this happens with little dialogue and a collection of traditional musical theater-style songs. And also, nonstop laughs.

I’m not sure that it can be called satire, but the show begins with an explanation of the premise of the Mormon faith. Joseph Smith is given gold plates, on which is written the third part of the Bible. It’s the story of Jesus visiting America and intervening in two warring tribes in what is now New York state. The deep beliefs of the young men in Salt Lake carry them in pairs on their mission. Idealistic and egotistical Elder Price wanted to be assigned to Orlando to revel in Disney, Universal and mini golf. Instead he is assigned short, chubby Elder Cunningham, who confesses that he has never read the Book of Mormon. It’s a lie out of Cunningham’s imagination.

Mark Evans and Christopher O’Neill sing, dance, and mug their way through the show’s energetic song and dance routines at the start. When they meet the six other elders who have had zero baptism success in Africa, they take their turn with the “natives.” When Cunningham puts the Joseph Smith story into terms that the locals can understand, they embrace the beliefs, baptisms follow and things unwind only when the head of missions comes to see the faith of the new members. He is treated to the African version of the Book of Mormon.

While much has been written about the gross, offensive nature of this show, I found it to be purely entertaining. A traditional musical in structure and style, “The Book of Mormon” entertains far more than offends. And the overall thesis of the show is that religious beliefs we take for granted can look very strange to someone outside the faith. That is the real message of the show, and the simplicity of the missionary characters points to their blind faith, which never is a good thing.

I especially enjoyed a visit to Mormon Hell, which appears in the dreams of the tempted devout members. Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran cavort with other more traditional demons. And the show’s take on the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” scene from “The King and I” has a solid base in many Christian faiths. We see God through our own culture.

The touring production features the amazing voice of Samantha Ware as Nabulungi, a Ugandan who opens the door to Christianity for her village. One of the most bouncy numbers is led by Grey Henson as Elder McKinley, who tells the other missionaries to take bad thoughts and “Turn It Off.” On Broadway, incidentally, this role was created by Rory O’Malley, who grew up in Bay Village and won a Tony Award nomination for his role.

This touring production had a bit too much “schtick” and mugging for my taste, but “The Book of Mormon” is also one of the best shows I’ve seen in a decade. It runs through July 7 at the Palace Theatre.

Original Broadway cast members Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in "The Book of Mormon." (Photo by Joan Marcus)




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