In it’s month-long stop in Washington, The Book of Mormon’s national tour delivers earnest charm and gleeful irreverence in a crude send-up of organized religion.
This may be the lewdest piece of theatre to ever occupy the Kennedy Center, but it has a certain innocence that prompts us to laugh with no shame. It’s satire with a good heart—as affirming as it is incisive. Densely allusive and perfectly polished, The Book of Mormon harnesses all the beauty and absurdity of the Broadway tradition to bring its audience utter joy.
The Book of Mormon greets us with chiming doorbells and gleaming smiles as the Mormon Boys practice for their all-too familiar house visits in “Hello.” It’s a slick, Golden-Age number with bell-choir harmonies that would make the Tabernacle choir proud. The opening message is clear—this is Broadway, written in light-bulb letters with an exclamation point, and it’s hilarious.
The detail and precision of the production is astounding from the start. The bright, amplified costumes and 21st century theatre tech wowed me to the point of exhaustion. Mormon is big-budget entertainment at its best, sparing no expense in the pursuit of delight. When our hero Elder Price sings about Orlando, Florida in “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”—a less-than subtle parody of Wicked—a massive painted backdrop descends for less than a minute to add hilarity to his tropical fantasy.
Mark Evans leads the cast as Elder Price in a performance as fresh and squeaky-clean as the Mormon Boys’ starched white shirts. His dream of Orlando is crushed when he is sent to Uganda to complete his mission with Elder Cunningham, a Chris Farley type with a penchant for lying. Christopher John O’Neill’s performance is spontaneous and inventive as the loveable goofball Elder Cunningham, who isn’t just a sidekick for long.
When the pair arrives in Africa, they discover that it’s “nothing like The Lion King.” The Mormon Training Center in Salt Lake City did nothing to prepare the Mormon Boys to preach their faith in an AIDs-ridden village being terrorized by a one-eyed warlord. The boys think they are fitting in with the locals when they sing along to the local motto “Hasa Diga Ebowei,” but are shocked when they find out that this does not mean the same thing as “Hakuna Matata.”
Back at the mission base-camp, Grey Henson leads the Mormon boys in a sparkling number about repression, “Turn It Off.” The lyrics here are Book of Mormon at its most biting, but when the Mormon boys broke into tap dance, I think my heart grew two sizes. From this point on, a smile was glued to my face, and I was not alone.
The Book of Mormon
Closes August 18, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
Approdimately 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: ranges up to $250
Tuesdays thru Sundays
If I wanted to completely ruin the story, I could praise every song in The Book of Mormon like this—each number is unforgettable. To mention a few more: Samantha Marie Ware illuminates the Kennedy Center as Nabulungi, a naïve young woman who convinces her fellow villagers to give the Mormon boys a chance. When she sang the blissful reverie “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” I swear she smiled with her entire body. Later, the audience roared at her bawdy duet with O’Neill’s Elder Cunningham, “Baptize Me.” The production reached a decadent pinnacle in the delirious mirage of the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” This number was my personal favorite for its many layers of detail and complete lack of restraint.
The Book of Mormon’s satire casts a broad net, lampooning more than just the Mormons. The jabs at our perception of Africa—and at the people who want to go tell Africans what is best of them—feel especially on-target here in Washington.
At The Book of Mormon, more than 2,000 people smiled for two and a half hours straight. The musical is an unstoppable laughter machine. Even the toughest critic can expect to have their quibbles drowned in a tsunami of pleasure when they see this show. The Book of Mormon is subversive, to be sure, but the experience is ultimately affirming—even sublime—uniting its audience in irrepressible delight.
While it’s true that this is the toughest ticket in town, there are still some seats available.
John Stoltenberg . MagicTime!
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Trey Graham . City Paper
Chuck Conconi . Washington Life
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Joanna Castle Miller . WeLoveDC
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts
Peter Marks . Washington Post