Saturday, June 23, 2018
Stage

Review: Believe in the magic of 'The Book of Mormon'

In a simple, bald-faced telling of its story, The Book of Mormon sounds awfully daring, even dangerous. How could a show ever get away with African villagers giving God the middle finger? Or baptism being likened to sex? Or Jesus crudely calling a missionary a certain part of male anatomy?

And then there's the big Mormon pageant about female genital mutilation, dysentery, AIDS and an unmentionable act done to babies and frogs.

But the magic of musical comedy strikes again when all these blasphemies are set to song and dance. Wednesday's performance by the national tour of The Book of Mormon was anything but gross (well, maybe a little) or mean-spirited. Instead, it has the cuddly eagerness to please of a puppy, though one with a tendency to bite the hand that feeds it.

Stylistically, the 2011 Tony Award winner for best musical combines the cheesy charm of Up with People and the subversive mischief of a class clown, the kind of guy who keeps his fellow students in stitches and makes life miserable for teachers and principals. No surprise there, because Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, the long-running TV cartoon about a gang of foulmouthed fourth-graders, wrote the musical, along with another connoisseur of hard-core humor, Avenue Q's Robert Lopez. A full house of 2,548 at the Straz Center seemed to love every minute of it.

Elder Price (Mark Evans), a straight-arrow high achiever in the Mitt Romney mold, and schlubby Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) are the odd couple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are 19-year-old missionaries dispatched from Utah to Uganda to spread the gospel of the all-American prophet Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni and the golden plates of God that were dug up on a hill in upstate New York. However, the Ugandans, who are plagued by famine, AIDS and a crazy warlord, resist the message, and Cunningham has to make up a theology of Hobbits, Darth Vader (coming after the old and new testaments of the Bible, the Book of Mormon is like Return of the Jedi, he explains) and other pop culture icons to save their souls.

The satire of Mormonism's weird beliefs — the weird beliefs of all religions, really — is delicious, but The Book of Mormon is also a love letter to musical theater. Many numbers are clever lampoons of other shows. Hello!, with squeaky-clean missionaries in short-sleeved white shirts, black ties and slacks, ringing doorbells on house calls, recalls a telephone scene in Bye Bye Birdie. Price and Cunningham's You and Me (But Mostly Me) owes a lot to The Wizard and I from Wicked.

Evans, a traditional leading man type, does a fine job with Elder Price's big Act 2 showstopper, I Believe, with its masterfully crafted lyric in which he relates farfetched articles of Mormon faith — "That God lives on a planet called Kolob!" — but never acknowledges doubt, because "I am a Mormon and, dang it / A Mormon just believes."

Remarkably, O'Neill is making his professional theater debut in this tour, but a background in sketch comedy serves him well as the misfit Elder Cunningham. His goofball shtick and quite passable singing come together hilariously in Man Up, a giddy hybrid of boy band and heavy metal posturing.

Another breakthrough performance is by Samantha Marie Ware, playing the Ugandan ingenue Nabulungi. She brings tremendous musical firepower to Sal Tlay Ka Siti, her impossible dream of a civilized existence in the Mormons' headquarters city ("Where flies don't bite your eyeballs / And human life has worth.").

The score by Parker, Stone and Lopez is so rich and tuneful that any number of its songs could be considered the best of the bunch, but Turn It Off is especially brilliant, as Elder McKinley (Grey Henson) leads the missionaries in "our nifty little Mormon trick" to suppress inconvenient (i.e., gay) feelings with no more effort than the flick of a light switch. Choreographer Casey Nicholaw, also credited as co-director with Parker, got the boys tap dancing, and costume designer Ann Roth outfitted them in pink sequined vests. Another favorite song, I Am Africa, is a sweetly savage putdown of liberal piety — the image of Bono takes a hit — as well as The Lion King.

There's a witty Florida angle to the show in Elder Price's ardent desire to be sent on a mission to Orlando, playing off the uncannily similar vibe between Temple Square in Salt Lake City and Disney World. Scott Pask's scenic design evokes the temple in the stage proscenium and theme park heaven in a colorful backdrop of Sunshine State kitsch.

Despite the musical's mockery, the LDS Church is not one to miss an opportunity for proselytizing. On a sidewalk by the Straz, missionaries handed out "I'm a Mormon" cards, and the playbill has three full-page ads with a pitch for the Book of Mormon: "You've seen the play. … Now read the book."

John Fleming, former performing arts critic for the Tampa Bay Times, can be reached at [email protected]

Comments
On stage this week: Freefall Theatre’s ‘The Musical of Musicals,’ Jay Pharoah

On stage this week: Freefall Theatre’s ‘The Musical of Musicals,’ Jay Pharoah

SENDUP: MUSICAL OF MUSICALSFive composers, a talented cast, choreography by Cheryl Lee and music directed by Michael Raabe — that’s Freefall Theatre’s recipe for a laugh-filled, season-ending summer musical, appropriately titled The Musical of Musica...
Published: 06/20/18
Jobsite’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ should be more gripping than it is

Jobsite’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ should be more gripping than it is

TAMPA — The virtues of Dancing at Lughnasa, with which Jobsite Theater closes its season, are many. This drama by the celebrated Brian Friel opened in 1990 to much acclaim. It captures a family’s joys and sadnesses, and the quickness with which one s...
Published: 06/19/18
Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In his vision for this weekend, Connor Coyle is standing in the ring at the Coliseum, and the referee is raising his gloved fist.He’s got a National Boxing Association middleweight championship belt around his waist, the first of sev...
Published: 06/15/18
Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In his vision for this weekend, Connor Coyle is standing in the ring at the Coliseum, and the referee is raising his gloved fist.He’s got a National Boxing Association middleweight championship belt around his waist, the first of sev...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/16/18
Why this ballet dancer is skipping college in favor of her own St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory

Why this ballet dancer is skipping college in favor of her own St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory

GULFPORT — Brianna Melton is as serious a ballet student as they come.By her junior year at St. Petersburg High’s International Baccalaureate program, she had already spent four summers training with ballet companies across the country and had narrow...
Published: 06/14/18
What’s on stage: The Illusionists, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa,’ G. David Howard

What’s on stage: The Illusionists, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa,’ G. David Howard

OPENING: DANCING AT LUGHNASAIrish playwright Brian Friel, who died in 2015 at 86, won’t be traveling anymore. But I’ll bet he packed a tidy suitcase. Dancing at Lughnasa, Jobsite Theater’s season closer, manages to address a lot of issues: race, reli...
Published: 06/13/18
Ruth Eckerd Hall tees up comedy, romance and Kristin Chenoweth for 2018-19 Broadway season

Ruth Eckerd Hall tees up comedy, romance and Kristin Chenoweth for 2018-19 Broadway season

Ruth Eckerd Hall rolls out a new lineup of musicals for its 2018-19 season, a mix of comedy, favorite musicals and romance."For the last 35 years, Broadway has always been a staple at Ruth Eckerd Hall," chief executive officer Zev Buffman said in a p...
Published: 06/12/18
A tense night at the Tony Awards ends in euphoria for Largo doctor Jeffrey Grove

A tense night at the Tony Awards ends in euphoria for Largo doctor Jeffrey Grove

Dr. Jeffrey Grove sat three-quarters of the way back from the stage at Radio City Music Hall, waiting for his moment. The Largo physician made the trip with family to New York for Sunday’s Tony Awards, where he hoped to see his investment in O...
Published: 06/11/18
Neal Boyd, ‘America’s Got Talent’ winner, dies at 42

Neal Boyd, ‘America’s Got Talent’ winner, dies at 42

SIKESTON, Mo. — Neal Boyd, an opera singer who won America’s Got Talent and dabbled in Missouri politics, has died. Scott County Coroner Scott Amick says Boyd died around 6 p.m. Sunday at his mother’s house in Sikeston. He was 42. Amick says Boyd had...
Published: 06/11/18
Parkland drama teens bring down the house with stirring performance at Tony Awards

Parkland drama teens bring down the house with stirring performance at Tony Awards

Members of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s drama team stole the show at the 72nd Annual Tony Awards Sunday night.The performance brought the crowd— many of whom were wiping tears from their eyes— to its collective feet at the Radio City Music ...
Published: 06/11/18