There is virtually no question, at this point, that “The Book of Mormon” is an excellent musical. Its dissenting voices have diminished into the remotest wilderness, leaving a Tony-winning, canonized, instant classic of near-universal admiration, the kind of show that crashes websites the second its box office opens, that kind of show whose pop-culture appeal has transcended Broadway, the kind of show that, yes, brings in the much-coveted young straight male demographic.
Given that we know all of this, the question you’ll be answering when leaving “Mormon” at the Broward Center – if you’re lucky enough to have snagged a ticket by now – is not “was it good?” but “did it live up to the hype?,” which is always a double-edged sword for cultural touchstones like this. After finally seeing the thing, I think it does.
There are some minor problems with this Broadway Across America production that should have been well ironed-out by opening night this week – sound issues in which large swaths of vocals are drowned out either by the onstage racket, the orchestra or the characters’ own costumes getting in the way – but the play’s moral (some may sight immoral) center remains intact as a study in why we believe, an ultimately optimistic inquiry viewed with jaundiced eyes. Like the best “South Park” episodes, it doesn’t just entertain and shock us; even its dirtiest lyrics and dialogue are grounded in hard truths.
Sent to Northern Uganda on their first mission together, newly minted Mormons Elder Price (Mark Evans), an egotistical go-getter; and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), his nerdy, misfit underling; find that their message of Jesus, Joseph Smith and the golden plates are of little use to a dilapidated, underfed, AIDS-addled village (vividly designed by Scott Pask) run by a menacing warlord intent on circumcising Ugandan women.
These are subjects that, it’s safe to say, have never been breached in the American musical theater canon until now. But the formula of its creators—Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez—hasn’t changed much since “Oklahoma!” “The Book of Mormon” is a grand, even conservative musical in the classical tradition, which, in almost all cases, I prefer to anything approach nouveau or avant-garde.
The songs are absolutely dynamite, and I’m still humming them this morning. The set-pieces and costumes are likewise inspired, most dizzyingly in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” whose name says it all; and the acting is so dead-on that it’s hard to imagine the Broadway cast was any better.
Evans plays his fresh-faced Elder Price like the Tracy Flick of the Church of Latter Day Saints, crossed with some of Jim Carrey’s elastic exuberance, while O’Neill, in his professional theater debut, is a hilarious and awkward Cunningham, always choreographed to be a step or two behind everybody else; your eyes will be drawn to him even when he’s not the center of the action. But, as Nabulungi, the attractive Ugandan girl with dreams of escaping her apocalyptic village, Samantha Marie Ware steals the show from everyone, effectively channeling rage, tenderness, angst and romantic froth in the musical’s most dynamic performance.
Honestly, I should end it here – the less you know about the show going in, the more you’ll enjoy it. Just leave your judgment at the door.
“The Book of Mormon” tour runs through Dec. 22 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $44.50 to $159.50. Call 954/462-0222 or visit browardcenter.org.