Thank God! Not for the Christmas season or even the rare convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah for the last time in 80,000 years. No, South Florida audiences are thanking their God, Goddess, Prophets or even the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster for the long anticipated arrival of The Book of Mormon at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center.
The Tony Award-winning musical, an outrageous riff on the theology and culture of the Mormon Church from the creators of South Park and the composer of Avenue Q, is definitely the hottest ticket of the season.
Word has it, the ushers at the Broward Center were coached on how to appropriately handle offended patrons who might leave mid-performance. Considering the first scene features Jesus Christ and the prophets Mormon and Moroni speaking in the voice of Eric Cartman—courtesy of creator Trey Parker—the chances were good.
But from the start, the audience of mostly gays, Jews and obviously liberal-minded Christians, Muslims, Pagans, Agnostics, Atheists, etc. had little trouble laughing with the irreverent humor.
Like most South Park episodes and their marionette action movie, Team America: World Police, Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s musical is, at its heart, a tale of redemption.
The protagonists are two young Mormon missionaries, Elder Price (Mark Evans) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) who have completed their training in Provo, Utah and are awaiting their assignment for a two-year long mission.
Price is handsome, confident and self-righteous, raised to believe that if he prayed enough, he would be sent to Orlando, Florida, and could someday become the prophet of the church. He is destined to do something great, he believes, until he is partnered with the hapless Cunningham and assigned to Uganda.
Cunningham is overweight, insecure and a compulsive liar who has never bothered to read the Book, but is tickled pink to finally have even a reluctant friend in Price and who, according to mission rule #72, cannot leave him alone except to go to the bathroom.
They no sooner land in Uganda, only to be robbed at gunpoint by the henchmen of the local warlord, General Butt-Fucking-Naked (an allusion to the real General Butt Naked) who is obsessed with female circumcision. They finally arrive at the village only to discover the horrifying realities of life in Africa—famine, poverty and AIDS.
The duo’s misadventures provide plenty of opportunities to take potshots at Mormon theology, especially as a despondent Price leaves and Cunningham musters the courage to proselytize the natives. He weaves an even more amazing tale of Jesus, Mormon and Moroni, Nephites and Lamanites, Ewoks and Hobbits, Darth Vader, Captain Kirk and the starship Enterprise, which the natives buy, hook, line and sinker.
Word of Cunningham’s miracle spreads to Utah and the mission leader decides to visit. That’s when the shit—and other things—hit the fan. Ironically, it’s the natives who recognize the metaphor in Cunningham’s religious tales and profess the power of faith.
Robert Lopez, co-composer and lyricist (Avenue Q), writes traditional, tuneful melodies that pay homage to his own Tony Award-winning show and also parodies its closest competition in 2004, Wicked, and the Broadway smash, Lion King. Some of the big, dazzling numbers include Spooky Mormon Hell Dream (scary funny), Joseph Smith, American Moses (a trashy tribute to The King and I’s House of Uncle Thomas) and Hasa Diga Eebowai (the translation can’t be printed here).
Co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw draws on the clichéd dances of the ‘50s and ‘60s to portray a Mormon culture rooted in an idealized past. Evans and O’Neill deliver heartwarming performances, backed up by a wholesome, energetic chorus of Mormon mission boys who sing and dance flawlessly throughout the demanding show. And, Grey Henson (Elder McKinley) takes his own star turn as a closet queen who advises the elders how to fight off inappropriate impulses in Turn it Off.
This holiday season, give the gift that keeps on giving—I’m not talking STDs—and take a friend to see The Book of Mormon during the remaining three weeks of the run. It’s funny, well performed and guaranteed to restore your faith in a way only the South Park guys can.
If You Go
The Book of Mormon
Broadway Across America
Au Rene Theatre, Broward Center, Fort Lauderdale
Through Dec. 22
Tickets start at $54.50 at BrowardCenter.org JW Arnold