“I have maggots in my scrotum,” said repeatedly as a running joke and a spooky Mormon hell dream that causes Jesus to say the word “dick” somehow don’t seem like parts of a heartfelt story about religion. Yet, when it comes to a musical like “The Book of Mormon,” anything can happen.
“The Book of Mormon” played at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Thursday after arriving in Denver earlier this month. Under the stars of a celestial backdrop, the audience milled and buzzed with a palpable anticipation. It was clear that coming to this particular musical wasn’t without its fair share of expectations.
Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame, and Robert Lopez who worked with the duo on “Avenue Q,” the bar for the show was set high. Beyond their huge successes with past projects, the three are known for throwing borderline offensive material at audiences in their quest for outrageous satirical comedy. Though many were skeptical and scared about its reception, the play emerged from a Broadway debut with nine Tonys in 2011 and a popularity that made its Denver stop sell out in hours.
The musical follows two young Mormon men as they leave their life of peppy doorbell ringing behind to embark on a two-year mission trip to Uganda. Of course, Uganda isn’t quite the “Lion King” experience they were hoping for, and they soon must grapple with an AIDS-ridden village that lives in fear of a warlord who “shoots people in the face.” What’s so scary about that?
Elder Price, the more important of the two leads as proclaimed in the hilarious song “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” was played by Gavin Creel. Creel nailed Price’s yearning to be the teacher’s pet of Mormonism with a childlike self-assuredness. With the posture and winning smile of a spelling bee contestant that can so quickly slump into a 10-year-old on the verge of a tantrum, he plays innocent and opportunistic with ease. Though Creel had many stunning vocal moments, he shone most in “I Believe.” The idealism in his eyes as he says lines like “The Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri,” while swaying with a increasingly annoyed warlord makes the scene so comical and so sweet at the same time.
To provide a foil to Elder Price, Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) is the geeky sidekick who just wants to do something right for once. Cunningham is an annoyance to Price, but Gertner never lets him slip into that territory for the audience. Instead, Gertner’s frequent references to Mordor and Ewoks and thrusting style of dancing are all hilarious and endearing. Gertner finishes off the first act with the best song of the show, “Man Up,” where he runs around in a fantasy of rock n’ roll fame and battles Darth Vader to psych himself up to spread the word. Gertner delivers lines like “I’m manning up all over myself” and “Just like Jesus, I’m growing a pair” with such perfect comedic timing and sincerity that the audience cheered and rooted for him throughout the song.
However, the leads were only the beginning of comedic dimensions of “Book of Mormon.” The show’s larger ensemble also consisted of a flamboyant group of Mormons stationed in Uganda. The song “Turn It Off” was a hilarious scene in which Elder McKinley (Grey Henson) convinces Price and Cunningham that they must crush their negative emotions to always be happy, Book-abiding Mormons. The scene quickly morphs into a highly Broadway-style dance sequence in which members of the cast clap their hands for the lights to turn off, and when the lights return a quick costume change procures pink, sparkly vests to the sound of tap dancing and audience gasps.
In contrast to this silly Broadway fare, Parker’s and Stone’s more controversial humor surfaced in “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” To the dismay of Price and Cunningham (“Holy Moley, I said it like 13 times!”), they learn that they are saying, “Fuck you, God” when they utter their favorite exclamation. The song gets pretty explicit, to say the least, but the audience didn’t seem to care as they roared with laughter over each profanity. The show managed to take an irreverent bit of comedy and accurately channel the frustrations of a tribe in a terrible situation. Especially with its celebratory tone and great vocal performances by Marisha Wallace and Samantha Marie Ware, the song had a lively, matter-of-fact quality.
Ware stole the show with her spectacular vocal performance as Nabulungi. With well-placed accents on certain words, she showed the pain of her situation and her longing for freedom in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” She also showcased her personality in “Baptize Me,” a duet she had with Jared Gertner. The sexually charged song allowed the two to flirt around the stage, with lines like “And he will baptize me, right in front of everyone.” Ware’s innocence was obvious, but her movement and energy made her believable as a young girl who’s about to get… baptized.
Ultimately, “The Book of Mormon” managed to unearth an element of poignancy. This was surprising considering the majority of the musical poked fun at the specifics Mormonism and were especially hilarious when voiced-over by Parker and Stone or included a light-up Jesus costume. However, once the specifics of Mormonsim became jumbled in the musical, a shred of humanity emerged. As said later in the musical, prophets speak in metaphors anyway, so specifics don’t matter. What matters is the hope that religions like Mormonism offer and the desire of people to help each other.
And through great acting and staging, “The Book of Mormon” allowed its characters to find this truth by the end.
Contact Managing Editor Stephanie Riesco at Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org.