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'Book of Mormon' meets eager audience's expectations in Bushnell engagement

Mormon missionaries learn to "Turn it Off" in this scene from the Broadway production of "The Book of Mormon"
Mormon missionaries learn to "Turn it Off" in this scene from the Broadway production of "The Book of Mormon"The Book of Mormon company

"The Book of Mormon" at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford

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The most anticipated offering of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Art’s Broadway Series, the Hartford premiere of the hit Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon,” has clearly met audience expectations if judged by the full houses this week and the enthusiastic response to every musical number and nearly all of the jokes.

There’s no denying that this theatrical venture created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys who gave us “South Park,” and the Academy Award winning composer Robert Lopez (for “Let It Go” from “Frozen”) is one of the freshest and most exhilarating musical comedies in a long time. And this is one time in which the comedy shares equal billing with the music. As is to be expected from Parker and Stone, the humor is outrageous, irreverent and occasionally deliciously obscene, and with Lopez they have crafted lyrics that are equally witty and delightful. For fans of “South Park,” this is no surprise, since Broadway-style production numbers pop up frequently in various episodes, evidencing an awareness and appreciation for the unique American stage genre.

Although I doubt that “The Book of Mormon” will go down in history as one of the greatest musicals of all time, it is in my view a perfect musical. What I mean is that it employs all the traditions of musical comedy in a near seamless manner and to maximum effect, with the right mix of stunning choreography, hummable tunes, just the right amount of elaborate staging and a genuinely funny libretto that constantly propels the plot forward while creating simultaneously audacious and charming characters who are constantly captivating. Lopez, Parker and Stone have a created a score rich in the pop music style of the musical comedies of the late 50’s and 60’s, but reflecting the anarchy and bite for which these writers are known. It goes without saying that Lopez shares a lot of Parker and Stone’s sensibility for after all he is the composer of the equally daffy and boundary-pushing “Avenue Q.” And like that puppet-filled musical, “The Book of Mormon” contains a sentimental heart at its core, demonstrating a fondness for its characters as well as a deep concern for their ultimate welfare.

Yes, the show may strike some as sacrilegious, especially since watchers of “South Park” know that the Mormon faith has been a frequent target of its bad-boy creators. They certainly don’t spare the Mormon Church here at all, as they delight in pointing out some of the incongruous elements of the faith that tend to strike non-believers as absurd and ridiculous. Yet at the same time, they convey a respect for the power of the religion, currently the fastest growing in America, as it manages to reach more converts and play a larger role in American public life, in spite of its checkered history.

Audiences too may be put off a bit by the frequency with which many of the characters in “The Book of Mormon” express their outrage at God in quite specific and unprintable terms. While some audience members may be shocked by such audacity and others laugh, Parker, Stone and Lopez go out of their way to demonstrate just how natural and justified such outbursts can be, in a part of the world where living conditions are crueler than can be imagined and human life is valued less than conquest, pleasure or violence. There is, if you’re open to it, a deep compassion underlying the show.

What’s more impressive about “The Book of Mormon” is that it is that rare animal—an original musical, not based on a pre-existing book, motion picture, or television series. The creators started from scratch developing their own plot and creating their own roster of new characters, resulting in an experience that feels fresh throughout since there is no existing story to follow or anticipated ending to reach. The audience has no idea where exactly the show is heading allowing interest to build, and the lack of a list of musical numbers in the Bushnell program only adds to this effect.

The plot is deceivingly simple in its overall construct. We follow two mismatched and quite naive missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as they graduate from their training program in Salt Lake City and are assigned to, of all places, Uganda, where they meet up with a cadre of their fellow missionaries who have been remarkably unsuccessful in making any conversions among the indigenous population. These local villagers, however, have extensive problems of their own, including AIDS, intra-community warfare and the constant threat of violence against women, particularly rape and female genital mutilation, which make them at least initially resistant to the platitudes of any religion.

Our two missionaries, the handsome, virtuous and prideful Elder Price, and the overweight, short, awkward and self-conscious Elder Cunningham who is thrilled just to be in the company of such a stellar example of Mormon missionary, will experience ups and downs in their relationship over the course of their mission, including a funny and unexpected role reversal. It will be Elder Cunningham whose gift for fabulation and love of all geek epics from “Star Wars” to “The Hobbit” will enable him to connect to the villagers while Elder Price will experience soul-searching doubt.

Mark Evans makes a fine appearance as the admired Elder Price, possessing an excellent singing voice and conveying his character’s initial confidence and ambition, as well as his later hilarious emotional breakdown, especially during what is suggested is a typical Mormon long night of the soul—“The Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”—one of the funnier and more acerbic numbers in the show ultimately involving such nightmarish figures as Hitler, Genghis Khan and Johnny Cochran, as well as two tempting cups of coffee, which are no-no’s for Mormons. He’s an agile dancer as well, able to hold his own with the chorus boys and other members of the cast.

His sad-sack counterpart, Elder Cunningham, is played amiably by the amusingly droll Christopher John O’Neill, who starts off as an unkempt, lonely but eager acolyte who slowly gains confidence as his grand entirely fictional elaborations of the real Book of Mormon earn him the attention of the villagers. O’Neill is an endearing riot whether acting out his television-inspired adaptations of Mormon stories or preparing a local female villager on whom he has a crush for his first baptism.

That villager is named Nabulungi and she is played beautifully and earnestly by Alexandra Ncube, who expresses the young woman’s deep desire to escape from her community and avoid the threats from the local warlord, going to what she believes is an Eden as described by the missionaries in a sweetly amusing solo, called on Broadway “Sal-Tlay-Ka-Siti” (Say it fast!). Unlike the Broadway production, however, someone associated with the tour must have decided that the song needed to be much clearer for the audience, so Ncube eliminates the broken English version singing an easy to understand “Salt Lake City.” The actress ably presents Nabulungi’s strong side, as she encourages the villagers to listen to the missionaries and eagerly embraces Elder Cunningham’s revisionist faith. A clever running joke revolves around his inability to pronounce Nabulungi’s nam, replacing it with any variety of familiar commercial products that start with “n.”

Another swell performance comes from Grey Henson as Elder McKinley, the leader of the Mormon missionaries in Uganda, who in the fanciful dance number, “Turn It Off” reveals the key to any Mormon missionary’s success in denying any feelings they may have about their assignment or, in his particular case, each other. Ron Bohmer makes a number of appearance in the guise of various characters, most notably that of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, whose tale is told several times in quite divergent iterations over the course of the evening. Corey Jones also makes a memorable impression as the local General whose name was in reality the name of an actual Ugandan warlord, but shouldn’t be shared on an all-access website.

Casey Nicholaw has provided some marvelous and creative dances for the production, which he also co-directed with Parker. The villagers perform a festive and uplifting dance to a chant, “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which turns out to have quite a distinctive meaning, and Nicholaw incorporates fanciful choreography into several numbers showing some of Elder Cunningham’s tall tales and a wonderfully jaw-dropping pageant performed by the now-converted villagers for some visiting Mormon officials. The direction keeps the evening moving at pretty swift a pace while assuring that the characters and the plot receive the right amount of attention.

Costume designer Ann Roth obviously had a good time creating a vast array of outfits for this production, ranging from the trademark white shirt black tie Mormon missionary garb, to the villagers’ eclectic mix and match clothes appropriate for a tropical climate, to the more fanciful outfits necessary for the devils and demons in hell dreams and the plethora of characters from the Mormon past. Scott Pask’s set accommodates the wonderful opening doorbell number “Hello” as a chorus of missionaries try out their scripts on non-believing households as part of their training, as well as creating a believable African village where much of the later action takes place. This is actually quite a clever adaptation of the frequently-seen musical set of ramps and stairs across the back wall of a stage, but here it works naturally into the wooden structure of the village.

There were plenty of young people in the Bushnell on the official opening night which was quite nice to see. Many were “South Park” fans and looking forward to what their idols Parker and Stone had prepared for the stage. There were also plenty of local folk who were curious as to what all the hype was about or who had heard from friends and relatives who had previously seen the show. I didn’t see any patrons expressing offense at any of the material, which does still happen in Hartford, but the overall merriment and high spirits of the production, and the ultimate heart at the center of the play should easily have won over even the most diffident prude. Plus the Mormon Church has a full page ad opposite the show's title page hawking the "real" Book of Mormon itself.

“The Book of Mormon” plays through March 30 at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. For information and to purchase tickets, call the Box Office at 860.987.5900 or visit the Bushnell website at www.bushnell.org.

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