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 firstname.lastname@example.org.