Provocative, hilarious 'Book of Mormon' coming to the Straz

Mormons plus South Park plus musical theater equals the biggest Broadway hit in years, The Book of Mormon.

Inspired by the sacred text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it's also the raunchiest show ever, relying on profane shock value for a lot of its laughs, such as a number that features the lyric "F--- you, God!" There's an African warlord character named Gen. Butt-F------ Naked. No religious sentiment goes unmocked, as in Man Up, in which a callow Mormon missionary summons the courage to save some souls: "And just like Jesus, I'm growing a pair!"

So The Book of Mormon is a long way from Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein, though its score does include dead-on lampoons of golden age musicals ranging from The King and I to Bye Bye Birdie.

Well, what did you expect from creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone? Their animated TV show, South Park, has been skewering sacred cows on Comedy Central for 16 years. Nor are the two strangers to song and dance — their 1999 screen musical South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was a success. For The Book of Mormon, they collaborated with Robert Lopez, who wrote music and lyrics for Avenue Q, which has its share of hard-core humor in songs such as The Internet Is for Porn.

The national tour of The Book of Mormon, the 2011 Tony Award winner for best musical, begins a two-week run Tuesday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. It's the opening show in the center's 2013-14 Broadway season.

"There hasn't been a blockbuster like this in a long time, not since Jersey Boys," said Straz president Judy Lisi, referring to the musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons that made its first visit to Tampa in 2008. She expects all 16 performances of The Book of Mormon to be sold out.

The musical is about a mismatched pair of 19-year-old missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are dispatched from Utah to Uganda to convert its people. Ravaged by famine, AIDS and war, the Ugandans aren't very receptive to an all-American religion and its "blond-haired blue-eyed voice of God," Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. So Elder Cunningham gets creative by inventing a theology that is equal parts Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

In many ways, The Book of Mormon is a standard-issue musical, using classic comic formulas, such as the odd couple of alpha-Mormon Price and schlubby Cunningham — think Laurel and Hardy, or Crosby and Hope in their Road movies — and their fish-out-of-water predicament. What makes the show so brilliant is how it uses Mormonism as a window on the irrationality of all religions. The story of Smith finding the golden plates of God buried on a hill in upstate New York in 1823 is no more farfetched than Noah's ark. However, for all its spoofery and naughtiness, the show's treatment of the bubbly, optimistic missionaries is essentially sweet.

Parker and Stone know their Mormons. They grew up in Colorado, where the LDS Church is a big presence. A 2003 episode of South Park called All About Mormons told the story of what happens when a squeaky-clean family of Mormons comes to town, but the guys' obsession with the religion goes back to their time as students at the University of Colorado, where they made the movie Cannibal! The Musical, which features a Mormon preacher. In 1997, they made Orgazmo, a dorky movie about a Mormon missionary (played by Parker) who becomes a porn star.

"They exaggerate Mormonism for comic effect," said Matthew Bowman, author of the 2012 book The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. "They'll seize upon obscure or tangential aspects of the religion that they find silly and can poke fun at. But they're never completely off the reservation. A Mormon who would watch this musical would maybe see themselves but in a funhouse mirror. All the pieces are there but some are distorted."

I Believe is the defining song of The Book of Mormon. In it, Elder Price declares his faith in conventional fashion — "I believe that the Lord God created the universe" — but the verses also include a series of weird Mormon beliefs: "I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America"; and "God lives on a planet called Kolob"; and "the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri," and so on.

"Yep, that is all in the Book of Mormon," said Bowman, a Mormon himself who teaches religion and history at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. "They're kind of stated in a bald-faced way, but they more or less all are true to Mormon beliefs. The bit about Jews building boats and sailing to America is as familiar to Mormon children as the story of the Exodus might be to Christians."

If Price's Act 2 showstopper is the high point, spiritually (and comically) speaking, of the musical, then Hasa Diga Eebowai in the first act is the song that will cause walkouts in the audience. A parody of Hakuna Matata from The Lion King, it has the Ugandans giving the finger to God.

"That's where the dark humor comes in," said Mark Evans, who plays Elder Price. "People find it shocking because they feel like they shouldn't be laughing at it, even though they find it highly amusing. War, poverty, famine, AIDS, all these horrendous things. That's what they're singing about in a very jovial, Disney way."

Ron Bohmer plays five characters in the musical, including Jesus Christ in a Mormon pageant. The look of Jesus was modeled on "Cheryl Tiegs in the '80s," according to costume designer Ann Roth. "My robe looks like a Vera Wang wedding gown," Bohmer said. "Our Jesus is awfully beautiful. And very Americanized. He doesn't look like he comes from the Middle East."

The tour is not yet scheduled to play Salt Lake City — "the most perfect place on earth," a Ugandan ingenue sings in Sal Tlay Ka Siti. But when the musical does get to the headquarters of the LDS Church, Bowman figures it will be eagerly anticipated. The church's single-sentence response to the show was shrewdly understated: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives by bringing them closer to Christ."

"It was almost dry enough that I thought, boy, maybe the Mormons actually get the joke here," Bowman said.

The church takes out ads in theater playbills. "They say things like, 'You've seen the play, now read the book, the book is always better,' '' actor Bohmer said. "We've actually had boys doing their mission in front of the theater, coming up to people in white shirt and black tie and black pants after the show. People probably think it's an advertising stunt at first, but then they realize these kids are genuine."

In the conclusion of his book, Bowman discusses The Book of Mormon and another Broadway hit with Mormon characters, Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America, whose protagonist, Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS, is a Joseph Smith figure who witnesses an angel crashing through his bedroom ceiling. Though the musical and Kushner's epic are different breeds of theater, both bring Mormonism into the mainstream of American life — a significant change for a religion that has often felt persecuted (Smith was killed by a mob in 1844) and been perceived as a cult. Mormons' practice of polygamy sent them into the wilderness of Utah.

"The traditional tropes about Mormons in pop culture have changed," Bowman said. "There used to be an aura of threat around Mormons. What is fascinating about The Book of Mormon is that in the musical Mormons are not threatening at all. They're not dangerous. Instead, they are sort of ludicrous."

For all their tolerance of the musical, Mormons must feel stung by the satire of Parker, Stone and Lopez. "Certainly, one response to The Book of Mormon has been that it slanders the church and is anti-Mormon," Bowman said. "Among what you might call thinking Mormons, the Mormon intellectual class, I think there is a more ambivalent reaction. There is an appreciation that the musical is not mean-spirited. But I think there is some worry that it presents Mormons as being silly and rather stupid."

John Fleming, former performing arts critic of the Tampa Bay Times, can be reached at jffleming@tampabay.rr.com.

Mormons in pop culture

There have been various "Mormon moments" throughout U.S. history when the native-born religion was ascendant, but the most high-profile one came when Mitt Romney ran for president. (Fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman was also up for the Republican nomination.) Around the same time, The Book of Mormon won nine Tony Awards, Mormon Stephenie Meyer was phenomenally successful as author of the Twilight novels, and Jimmer Fredette, a Mormon at the flagship Brigham Young University, was college basketball player of the year.

For generations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints occupied the margins of American culture. Beyond founder Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, the only Mormons most people might know of were Ezra Taft Benson, agriculture secretary in the Eisenhower administration, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Donny and Marie Osmond. Nowadays, there's no shortage of Mormons famous in pop culture. Among them:

• U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid

• Radio talk show host Glenn Beck

Big Love, an HBO series (2006-2011) about a polygamous Mormon family

• Business guru Stephen R. Covey, the late author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

• Elizabeth Smart, kidnap victim and tabloid staple

• All-time Jeopardy winner Ken Jennings

• Playwright Neil LaBute, who was "disfellowshipped" by the church for his series of one-act plays that savaged Mormons, Bash: Latter-Day Plays

— John Fleming, Times correspondent

>>If you go

The Book of Mormon runs Tuesday through Nov. 24 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. Weekend tickets are scarce now. $65.50-$150. (813) 228-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

Provocative, hilarious 'Book of Mormon' coming to the Straz 11/07/13 [Last modified: Monday, November 11, 2013 3:50pm]

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