The first time I saw “The Book of Mormon,” on Broadway, I got a little nervous. (How does one convey the “South Park” brand of scabrous humor and unadulterated glee to readers of a family newspaper?)
The second time I caught it, at the Fox Theatre two years ago, I was disappointed that one of the principal performers wasn’t outrageous enough. (Can you say “fickle”?)
The third time, at the Fox Wednesday night, I was ready to clasp my hands at my chest and shout: “I Believe,” to quote the fervent anthem from Act One.
Yes, I “bee-leeeve,” brothers and sisters, that Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s sick and twisted satire of Mormonism — and the dewy young missionaries who knock on doors at distant corners of the planet in order to spread the word and win converts — is about as good a time as you’ll find in the theater today.
The genius of “The Book of Mormon” is the way it finds truth by wrapping its indelicate material in such sweetly angelic packaging.
If you don’t know the story, it is essentially the tale of a pair of unlikely Mormon missionaries — the perfectly polished Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and the socially repugnant Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand) — who get marched off to Uganda, where they encounter disease, devastation and disbelievers. When you were expecting Orlando, this totally sucks.
With his gift of fantasy and fabrication (“Making Things Up Again”), the “Star Wars”/”Lord of the Rings” geek manages to convert the natives. When church leaders rush in to congratulate him, they are horrified by his revisionist telling of their holy book. Along the way, Cunningham becomes smitten with the lovely Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels), while Price encounters the wrath of the angry General (David Aron Damane) and dreams of spending eternity in “Spooky Mormon Hell.”
This fiery-red barn-burner — which trots out Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Johnnie Cochran and closet case Elder McKinley (the wonderful Daxton Bloomquist) — is a sublime and inspired Luciferian pageant that shows off the handiwork of designers Scott Pask (sets), Ann Roth (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting) at its giddiest.
As directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw (with choreography by Nicholaw, who will stage the world premiere of “The Prom” at the Alliance Theatre this fall), this company is across-the-board excellent. Bondy nails the frozen smiles, shocked demeanor and (almost) limitless patience of Price. Quarrels’ take on the innocent Nabulungi is sweetly natural and refreshingly devoid of stereotype.
But it’s Strand who owns this show.
A superb physical comedian, he inhabits the part of the needy, awkward, fidgety, hopelessly out-of-control Cunningham with every particle of his being. Awkwardly tugging at the waist of his ill-fitting elder garb, stripping down to his long-johns and cooing softly to Price at bedtime, unaware of his girlishness and all ready to “Man Up,” he’s a wildly watchable enfant terrible: William Barfee (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) meets John Belushi’s Bluto (“Animal House”).
OK, OK. So it took me a few viewings to appreciate the craftsmanship and intelligence that underpin the raunchy tomfoolery of “The Book of Mormon.” Now I’m a full-fledged convert, almost ready to knock on doors and ring doorbells to get the word out.
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