My wife and I are big fans of the works of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, best known for the notorious South Park, and were thrilled when we learned their stage show The Book of Mormon was coming to Detroit. At last! We would finally be able to attend. The show has earned countless awards, including the Tony award for Best Musical in 2011 and a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album in 2012.
It’s difficult to describe The Book of Mormon without spoiling it, as much of its comedy stems from the unexpected and absurd twists the story takes. Suffice it to say, the story revolves around two Mormon missionaries who have come of age and are setting out on their mission to spread their religion. To the dismay of the lead, Elder Kevin Price (Gabe Gibbs in this tour production), he is assigned to Uganda rather than his desired destination of Orlando. Joining him, also to his dismay, is co-star Elder Arnold Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), who is chubby, comically inept, and obsessed with popular fiction.
Nothing is Sacred
The show pulls no punches in its portrayal of religion in general and of Africa. They arrive in a poverty-stricken village only to find elders who have been unsuccessful in conversion. The natives blame their many woes on God (shown through a blasphemous and catchy musical number, of course) and are more interested in practical solutions to their problems than divine bliss. The duo of Price and Cunningham then meets with their fellow missionaries and have to learn how they cope with the crushing hopelessness of their situation.
Much of the humor stems from the discomfort of the narrative, namely some racial tension between the missionaries and the natives. Whimsical liberties were also taken with the religious teachings by Elder Cunningham to make their message more relatable to the horrible situation. We spent most of the show laughing, but also cringing or feeling a little guilty in parts.
Making Things Up Again
The song and dance numbers are catchy and inspired, as well as quirky and odd, as we’ve come to expect from Parker and Stone. Perhaps by intention, some of the choreography seems slightly out of sync, either to emphasize the comedic absurdity of situations or simply because the high energy dance numbers were too demanding for even the seasoned theater troupe. If anyone was off a mark or out of step, it didn’t detract from the overwhelming comedy.
The Mormon characters seem to come in many shades of gray, being neither positive nor negative characters. Elder Price wants to do good but is somewhat selfish in his ambitions as to where he does that good. Elder Cunningham means well, but lies and invents scriptures to create stories to make teachings applicable to the African’s plight. The supporting Mormon cast runs a gambit of eccentricities that make them painfully ineffective in their mission, which ultimately leads them to shame their church in the name of trying to keep peace in the village.
Can’t make this up…
Conflict comes by way of the murderous warlord and only truly negative character, General Butt-F—ing Naked (played by David Aron Damane), who we were amazed to learn was based on a real person! He robs the duo upon their arrival, pillages the village regularly, and intends to mutilate the women. Talk about a horrible situation for these noobs to walk into.
Again, there’s only so much that can be told about the plot before a review risks spoiling the humor, but the comedy and the music are outstanding—even unforgettable. Breaks in the laughter were few and far between. It’s fairly easy to relate to the Mormon cast, being out of place and bumbling with how to achieve their goals in a terrible, impoverished environment that most first-world country folks would be lost in. The solutions they invent are cringe-worthy but about as good as anyone else in their situation could improvise. Before the final curtain, conflicts are resolved, but not in a neat and tidy way you may have come to expect from musicals.
Sets were well designed, from the heavenly archway that surrounds the stage and changes color as needed to the impoverished Ugandan village. The Spooky Mormon Hell Dream may have been the highlight of the show. Costumes were usually simple but effective, as the Mormons and the villagers are both simple and humble people. There were exceptions throughout, such as some more elaborate African-inspired musical numbers utilizing garbage to make movie festive costumes, and everything to do with the aforementioned Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.
It’s noteworthy that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a very good sport about the show, even advertising in the playbill (This ad placement is not intended as an endorsement.)
Don’t wait for a Latter Day
Given the widespread acclaim and the overall quality of the show, it’s safe to assume that The Book of Mormon will continue to run around the world for some time. We encourage any fans of dark humor or musical enthusiasts who aren’t offended by a few dirty words to see it if they get the opportunity.