Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham
When my kids were growing up, our house was very popular. We allowed MTV when other parents in the neighborhood hesitated and when a stop-motion cartoon named “South Park” hit the airwaves of Comedy Central, we let anyone who was in the house – heck, we went out of our way to invite people over – watch and enjoy.
So when we learned that South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker had teamed with Robert Lopez, the creator of one of our favorite irreverent musicals “Avenue Q,” to create “The Book of Mormon,” we couldn’t wait to see it.
We were not alone. When tickets went on sale, a thousand people lined Hollywood Boulevard to tithe at the box office for tickets. Wednesday’s opening night house was packed. And from the opening doorbell chime emanating from the temple-like proscenium, complete with golden herald angel at its peak, to the final notes that brought the crowd to its feet, it was apparent: “The Book of Mormon” is clearly a smash.
This is not the show to use to introduce your children to Broadway musicals, although the singing and dancing is breathtaking and exuberant. Likewise, if you are easily offended, this is not the show for you. But if you like to laugh, think, ponder and believe, come on down.
“The Book of Mormon” skewers everything – religion, devotion, truth, AIDS, poverty, parental approval, romance, expectations. This show is the embodiment of “nothing is sacred.”
The opening number “Hello!” introduces us to a new flock of missionaries, fresh-faced and ready to embark on their journeys to spread the word. Arriving late to the party is Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner, who understudied and eventually took over the part on Broadway), who strays from the script, but cranks up the enthusiasm, using his imagination to get his foot in your door for a few more words. Watch this kid, because he runs away with the show.
The heir apparent in this class dynasty, Elder Price (Gavin Creel), is a slick, polished showman who believes he is destined to be God’s spokesman in Orlando and shines in the recruitment number “Two By Two.” He is crushed when his partner turns out to be the gawky Cunningham and they are assigned to the place least likely to be mistaken for Orlando: Uganda.
Cunningham, on the other hand, is thrilled that he finally has a friend.
The pair arrive in Uganda, determined to make the best of a bad situation, but their persistence just gets them in hot water with the village’s brutal warlord (whose name cannot be printed here) whose henchmen rob them. When he leaves, the villagers gather around them and everybody joins in a catchy song and dance “Hasa Diga Eebowai” led by village chief Mafala Hatimbi (Kevin Mambo) that the boys discover is really an insult to God that helps the poverty-stricken, sexually-mutilation-threatened, terrorized villagers keep their sanity.
Reality, these young men are finding out, sucks.
They meet their fellow missionaries (turns out there’s quite the crowd of white-shirted boys in Uganda), led by the sexually-unsure Elder McKinley (Grey Henson), who teach the newbies to just tune it out, turn the other cheek and “Turn It Off.” They also discover that none of the previous missionaries have recruited a single villager to Mormonism.
Price, shocked by the violence, poverty and what he sees as hopelessness, goes into a tailspin, only to be encouraged by Cunningham, who promises to stick with him and bolsters his sense of self-worth.
In the meantime, Cunningham has become acquainted with the village chief’s daughter, Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware), who is curious about the message the white-guys-in-ties bring. She tells him that the natives find traditional Mormons boring and are not interested in joining the religion. Cunningham calls upon his creativity and plethora of Star Wars/Star Trek/Lord of the Rings trivia and uses it to make the message meet the masses. He enthralls villagers with the basic story from The Book, livening up the boring parts with scenarios of magic and some beastiality.
Now, they’re listening. Maybe there is something to those “ministries” that serve as sugar to help the medicine go down…
Cunningham becomes the Pied Piper of Mormonism, baptizing Nabulungi (start listening to the ways he butchers her name, using every N-name he can think of, from Nicotine CQ to Neosporin) and her fellow villagers, making the stats for the Uganda missionaries spike.
Buoyed by Cunningham’s success and optimism against all odds, Price is reinvigorated and vows to convert General We Can’t Name Here. He sings the moving, show stopper “I Believe” which lifts the spirits of the audience until they start really listening to the words that drip with sarcasm and dedication.
And then he goes for a Come To Joseph Smith meeting with the General and his lackeys, which doesn’t end pleasantly.
While the villagers are celebrating their new-found religion, everybody joins in the dance “We Are Africa” at which we learn the outcome of Price’s meeting. Let’s just say the general’s boys filed the book in a place where the sun doesn’t shine. He tailspins downward, questioning everything from his upbringing, his faith, his friendships and promises made that were broken. He lashes out at Cunningham, who realizes he can succeed on his own, but agrees to act as if the two were still partners in prayer when the Mission President makes his visit to hand out accolades for “their” accomplishments.
All is going well, until the villagers, flush with their new-found faith, burst into the ceremony and insist on performing their version of Joseph Smith’s saga in song and dance. The elder Elders are shocked. It seems that not everyone believes, as Cunningham does with his entirely pure heart, that anything that will help people can’t possibly be wrong. They leave in a huff, telling the villagers that they are not Mormons and probably never will be Mormons.
What rebukes the president and his men turns into an epiphany for Price, who realizes that Cunningham was right all along – that helping people is the important thing.
The casting of this company couldn’t have been more perfect – from the nerdy optimist Gertner to the suave Creel and the sensuous Ware, down to each ensemble player. The choreography (by the Tony Award winner and co-director Casey Nicholaw) is amazing (the tap number is hysterical), the costumes colorful (yes, even with all those white shirts and black pants) and the sets take audiences right along the mission in the jungle.
Creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone have given us a gift with this show – and that’s the belief that live theater can help us laugh at ourselves, while holding up a mirror and reflecting both the good and the bad. You will be moved, you will be revived, you will learn things about yourselves you may never have known when you see this show.
But most of all, you’ll believe.
The Book of Mormon is the winner of nine 2011 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Direction, Best Featured Actress, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Sound Design and Best Orchestrations. Tickets for the Pantages Theatre presentation of “The Book of Mormon” are available at the Pantages Theatre box office or at their website, www.BroadwayLA.org.
In Los Angeles, the production will conduct a pre-show lottery at the box office, making a limited number of tickets available at $25 apiece; cash only. This lottery will be held prior to every performance. The producers of The Book of Mormon are pleased to offer low-priced lottery seats for every city on the National Tour as a thank you to the show’s fans on the road.
Entries will be accepted at the box office beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance; each person will print their name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for a limited number of tickets priced at $25 each. Only one entry is allowed per person. Cards are checked for duplication prior to drawing. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets. Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.
September 5 – November 18
Tuesday through Saturday 8 p.m.
Saturday matinee 2 p.m.
Sunday 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Performances November 20-25
Tuesday 8 p.m.
Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sunday matinee 1 p.m.
For more information about the Los Angeles premiere engagement of The Book of Mormon, visit the official website of the Pantages Theatre, www.BroadwayLA.org.