Start with the structure of a traditional musical and infuse it with some of the most outrageous, offensive, and inventive scenes you can imagine, and you have “The Book of Mormon,” the blockbuster production that Broadway in Richmond opened at the Altria Theater this week.
Local theatergoers will get a lot of what they’ve come to expect from these glitzy New York transplants: a clashing of cultures, a redemptive coming-of-age story, and lots of big dance numbers. But this subversive show offers plenty of unexpected moments that could only have originating with the creators of “South Park,” like a peppy song about emotional repression called “Turn It Off” or an African village terrorized by a warlord named General Butt-Fucking Naked.
And those are among the tamer parts. In fact, some easily-offended folks may be happy that the habitually muddy sound mix at the Altria obscures several of the more appalling lyrics. But those who embrace the wild impertinence of this kind of humor - as this critic does – will appreciate the range of devices Trey Parker, Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” composer Robert Lopez employ to make “Mormon” a non-stop laugh-fest. From the offhand mangling of village ingénue Nabulungi’s name (“necrophilia,” “Nala,” etc.) to the brilliant conflation of a baptism to a first sexual encounter in the song “Baptize Me,” this is a show engineered to entertain at least as much as to offend.
The production succeeds in large part by completely nailing the basics: the scenes flow seamlessly from one to the next due to lightning fast set changes, the choreography by Casey Nicholaw (who co-directed with Parker) is consistently frenetic and fun, and the actors totally commit to the goings-on regardless of how ridiculous. Even when some lyrics are lost, the over-the-top drama of songs like “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is irresistible.
This may not be a show beloved by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however. The plot involves two young Mormon missionaries, Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand) and Elder Price (normally David Larsen but played by Ryan Bondy in Wednesday’s performance), sent to Uganda to convert the natives. Beyond their personal incompatibilities – Cunningham is an uber-nerd prone to extravagant lies while Price is the classic over-achieving, All-American boy – the dismal poverty and disease of the African villagers makes their job nearly-impossible.
It doesn’t help that the religion they’re peddling is so flat-out nuts; the show is unsparing in its characterization of Mormon belief as bizarre almost beyond comprehension. It’s telling that the African misconstruction of the Joseph Smith saga is only moderately more insane than the actual story.
Along the way to inevitable triumph and lesson-learning – this is a musical after all – the wackiness spans from the just-wrong to the inspired. It would be a shame to spoil all of the surprises but it’s worth noting that an x-ray of someone’s rectum offers a key revelation and that the ‘dumb natives’ are eventually shone to be not quite so dumb as you might think.
Strand, who played Elder Cunningham on Broadway, channels South Park’s Cartman in his portrayal and overcomes his somewhat underwhelming vocals with a winning loosed-limbed physicality. Bondy makes Elder Price’s supreme self-involvement endearing, particularly in the anthemic “You and Me (But Mostly Me).” The real revelations in the cast are two exceptional supporting players, the lovely bold-voiced Denée Benton as Nabulungi and the hilariously closeted Elder McKinley played by Pierce Cassedy.
“Mormon” may not be everybody’s cup of tea and some bits skew toward laziness: the repetition of “maggots in my scrotum” quickly gets old. Still, the marriage of near-perfect stage musical fundamentals with the irreverence of Monty Python on steroids results in a hopped-up night of theatrical delight for those willing to take the plunge.
“The Book of Mormon” plays through Sunday, November 9th, at the Altria Theater, 6 North Laurel Street. Tickets and information available at broadwayinrichmond.com.