If you are easily offended by extreme insensitivity where matters of church and faith and God and Yoda are concerned, stay far, far away from “The Book of Mormon,” the Tony Award-winning musical back for a third time in Chicago, through Aug. 14 at the PrivateBank Theatre.
‘THE BOOK OF MORMON’
When: Through Aug. 14
Where: PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Seriously, leave the kids at home, and I’m talking anyone under the age of 17 (by movie ratings standards), even if they are HUGE fans of “South Park.” Because “The Book of Mormon” is no “South Park,” even if the animated cable series’ creator-writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with “Avenue Q” and “Frozen” songwriter Robert Lopez, are the genius team behind the very darkly comedic stage production.
This is not fuddy-duddy speak. It’s just a strong suggestion, and I’m confident some of you will thank me for it. To the rest of you, it’s nothing that’s not been said about the musical since it bowed on Broadway in 2011. And, judging by its 43-week run in Chicago in 2012, nothing that will keep you from revisiting this ridiculously entertaining, crude, satirical musical that uses the Mormon religion as its reality-checking sword. Seeing for the second time in four years, it remains an archetypal musical if ever there was one.
Co-directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw, “The Book of Mormon” uses myriad music genres, crisp choreography and profanity-riddled dialogue and songs to probe the deepest recesses of the Mormon religion (and world religions in general), in a world where reality and dreams collide in the harshest of ways. No faith, no human crisis is spared the rapier wit of the show’s book and lyrics, as the story delves into such topics as the AIDS epidemic in Africa, sex with frogs, child molestation, female castration, homophobia, racism, hunger, murderous warlords and Jesus “manning up” for his crucifixion.
I warned you.
The story centers on a pair of Mormon missionaries setting out on their first assignment outside the safety net of their Salt Lake City tabernacle’s training center. The unabashedly devout and eager Elder Price (a young Jim Carrey-like Ryan Bondy with a powerhouse voice) is saddled with the frumpy but lovable and nerdy Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand, who can elicit roars of laughter with the subtlest of gestures or vocal inflections), who knows nothing of the Mormon religion (he “never read the book”) but gives it his best shot. A misunderstood loner his entire life, Elder Cunningham wants more than anything to find a true friend in his traveling compadre. They are sent to a mission located in a rundown, war-rattled shanty town in Uganda, where Elder Price (who covets a post in Orlando, Florida) — petrified by the devastating reality of the African society he encounters — quickly intones “Africa is no ‘Lion King.’”
In a most hilarious homage to all things Latter-day Saints, the duo finds there are no doorbells to ring in the ramshackle village. Their joyous “hellos” are met with a barrage of middle-finger salutes. At first, their book of Mormon offers little comfort to the residents, who are terrorized by a warlord whose name cannot be printed here (played with commanding stage presence by David Aron Damane). The tide starts to turn when one of them — the beautiful, wide-eyed dreamer Nabulungi (the enchanting Candace Quarrels) — falls for Elder Cunningham and comes to believe his unique take on the Mormon faith. His tale of church president Joseph Smith and his successor Brigham Young and the mysterious “golden plates” upon which the Mormon faith is based is ultimately visualized in a most shocking community theater production by the villagers. It’s the climax in a musical filled with moments of jaw-dropping cringes. We shouldn’t laugh, but we do.
Standouts in the ensemble include Daxton Blomoquist as Elder McKinley, struggling to suppress his true nature in “Turn It Off,” one of the funniest (and most bedazzled) numbers in the show, and Sterling Jarvis as Nebulungi’s father, Mafala Hatimbi, who wants a better life for his young daughter, and, well, why not Mormonism? Nebulungi sings of — say it very slowly and deliberately — “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” in a heartfelt moment.
There’s plenty of heart (and soul) to be had in “The Book of Mormon.” Keep the faith.
NOTE: The show features numerous references to Orlando, including one entire musical number. In light of the recent horrors of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in the Florida city, there was a moment when it felt awkward to hear laughter at the mere mention of the word. But given the context of its place in the musical, it was no more insensitive than any of the other seriously horrific topics depicted. Should the entire number be stricken from the production? I say no. For a moment, the audience, like Elder Price, could smile at Orlando Strong.