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“The Book of Mormon” has returned to Chicago. | Julieta Cervantes

‘Book of Mormon’ stays true to form — and that’s a very good thing

SHARE ‘Book of Mormon’ stays true to form — and that’s a very good thing
SHARE ‘Book of Mormon’ stays true to form — and that’s a very good thing

How politically incorrect/potentially offensive is “The Book of Mormon”? Let’s answer that with another question. Remember that 2012 ad campaign in which Gwyneth Paltrow and Sarah Jessica Parker smeared stripes on their faces and proclaimed “I Am Africa”? “The Book of Mormon” makes that campaign look like the height of all wokeness.

‘The Book of Mormon’ ★★★★ When: Through Dec. 2 Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Tickets: $40 – $150 Info: Broadwayinchicago.com

It takes cathedral’s worth of hubris to believe you should waltz into another culture and “save” its people by convincing them that Jesus will give them their own planet after they’re dead and, that BTW, “God changed his mind about black people in 1978.” So goes the proselytizing in Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s “The Book of Mormon.” Directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw haven’t dimmed the raunchy, profane potency of the nine-time Tony winner. In the story of Mormon missionaries trying to save souls in Uganda, nothing is sacred and nearly everything is funny.Be warned: If you’re a person who blanches at jokes about man-on-frog sex, for example, stay home.

Seven years after its debut, “The Book of Mormon” retains its original glory. The cast is as big as it was on Broadway. Scott Pask’s elaborate set moves from Mission Control in Salt Lake City to a village in Uganda like a well-oiled machine (please note that the hut in Uganda mimics the architecture of massive Mormon Temple architecture that frames the set). The denizens of hell in “Spooky Hell Dream” are all accounted for: Genghis Khan. Hitler. People who drink coffee.

Ann Roth’s costumes still feature plenty of zazzle (especially when sin is front and center) and more than a few ridiculously apt references to “The Lion King.” The score, under music director Andrew Graham’s orchestra, sounds lush and full.

But the heart (and there is one) of “The Book of Mormon” remains in the delivery of its story, specifically in handsome young super-Mormon Elder Kevin Price (Kevin Clay) and his ungainly, awkward, needy/nerdy mission partner, Elder Arnold Cunningham (Conner Peirson). Elder Price is the Mormon version of Homecoming King. Elder Cunningham is that guy who couldn’t even get elected assistant treasurer of the junior varsity A.V. club.

The plot follows their reversals in fortune, with Elder Price eventually having his come-to-Jesus moment wherein Christ calls him something we cannot here in good conscience quote in full. Clay is ideal as Elder Price, feet planted firmly, hands in determined fists, chin defiantly up, selling the bejeezez out of “I Believe.” The anthem is stirring because Clay gives it such undeniable sincerity. Elder Cunningham, meanwhile, becomes a hero thanks to his gift for lying, I mean, using his imagination.

“The Book of Mormon” specifically deals with the Book of Mormon, but it’s pretty clear that the musical is commenting on way more than beliefs specific to Mormons. Elder Cunningham breaks it down with brazen succinctness: Christians have two books. Jews have one. Mormons get three. The Bible is like the original “Star Wars” trilogy, he explains: The Book of Mormon is “Return of the Jedi.”

Peirson’s Elder Cunningham is wonderful, whether he’s talking about Lamanites’ Death Star or gazing googly-eyed at Nabulungi (a clarion-voiced Kayla Pecchioni), the young woman who becomes his first baptism. Anyone who was ever picked last for kickball (or anything, really) will relate to Elder Cunningham.

Certainly “The Book of Mormon” is not a book for all people. But its prurience is never without a point. It’s crude and crass and roiling with stereotypes, from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus to the warlord accessorizing with reflective sunglasses and a machine gun. And look. Should you feel a bit guilty about laughing? You can always repent after the show.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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