As Elder Cunningham’s parents pack him off for two years of duty in “The Book of Mormon,” they instruct their son to be mindful of his little problem. Seems the nerdy and bespectacled kid with self-esteem issues has a tendency to embellish the facts.
The teenage elder’s flair for fantasy is an essential plot twist in the Broadway blockbuster centered on a pair of young men who travel to Uganda to work as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As portrayed by Conner Peirson, Cunningham is a screaming reminder of why “The Book of Mormon” — the raunchy musical comedy that plays the Fox Theatre through Sunday — remains such a howler.
Much has happened in the seven years since the scabrous satire by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, aided by genius songwriter Robert Lopez, came kicking and screaming into the world. (This is the third touring production to scandalize Atlanta since 2014.)
For one thing, after “Book of Mormon” swept the 2011 Tony Awards (winning nine), Lopez, once known mainly for his work on “Avenue Q,” went on to write a pair of Oscar-winning tunes for the Disney films “Frozen” and “Coco.” For another, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has become the most sought-after ticket in American theater.
Yet the tale of Cunningham, his supremely confident sidekick, Elder Price (Kevin Clay), and the rest of their irrepressibly gleeful flock of Mormon missionaries and Ugandan converts is unsurpassed in its ability to shock. In its tightly wound 2 1/2 hours, the musical spews enough unprintable words to fill up the morning newspaper (woe is me), and the cultural clash between the fresh-faced missionaries and the earthy Ugandans is used as a set-up for a non-stop barrage of unseemly jokes and stereotypes, about both groups.
As an equal-opportunity offender, “Book of Mormon” is a smashing success.
The Mormons were expecting a “Lion King” moment in Africa. Instead, they step into a landmine of poverty, political oppression and AIDS. It’s Sodom and Gomorrah redux, but don’t be fooled by the buttoned-up composure of the Mormons. Where the Ugandans are unfiltered and uncensored, the missionaries are just repressed. (See “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.”)
I’ve watched this show four times now, in Atlanta and New York, and I am still stunned by how low it can go, and how it can pivot every now and then from being utterly inappropriate to oddly moving.
Choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who co-directs the show with Parker, delivers dances that are constantly exuberant and consistently inspired. Here, every song-and-dance sequence rings true, from the opening doorbell number, “Hello,” to the comic zinger about repression, “Turn It Off.” Price’s soaring anthem to Mormonism, “I Believe,” will give you goosebumps; “Baptize Me,” the duet for Cunningham and the lovely Nabulungi (Kayla Pecchioni), will give you giggles. (Not to mention Cunningham’s ongoing confusion about his love interest’s name, whom he calls everything from Neutrogena to Nancy Pelosi.)
Clay has a gorgeous singing voice. And so does Peirson, when the material requires him to swap the overweening William Barfee-meets-Jiminy Glick tomfoolery for genuine feeling. Andy Huntington Jones is wonderful as the swishy Elder McKinley, and Tyrone L. Robinson is hilarious as the ominous Ugandan warlord (whose name cannot be uttered here).
My one lonely quibble with this very fine effort is some of the wobbly accents. Several actors, Pecchioni included, kind of warble between lilting African cadences and everyday American English. Still, that’s a minor criticism of a major miracle of a musical, one that virtually reinvented the genre. After multiple viewings, “Book of Mormon” feels as horrifying and distasteful as ever. Lest you haven’t been reading closely, I mean that as high praise.
“The Book of Mormon”
7:30 p.m. July 19. 8 p.m. July 20-21. 2 p.m. July 21. 1 p.m and 6:30 p.m. July 22. Through July 22. Tickets start at $33.50. Broadway in Atlanta, Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org
Bottom line: Lord, it’s good.
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