Since March 2011 “The Book of Mormon” has been making audiences wince and laugh as they try not to sing along. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, teamed up with Robert Lopez, the co-composer and co-lyricist of Avenue Q, to create this shocking and incredibly, humorously blasphemous musical. Winner of nine Tony Awards, “The Book of Mormon” is still performed on Broadway and in the West End and is on its second national tour with performances at The John F. Kennedy Center Opera House.
“The Book of Mormon” begins as the newest set of Latter-day Saints missionaries complete their three-month training at the Missionary Training Center. These young Mormon men are then paired off and sent on various two-year mission trips around the world to spread the Word of God and convert people to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, when the esteemed Elder Price (Kevin Clay) is paired with the misfit Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson) on a mission to Uganda, a clash of cultures ensues. Elders Price and Cunningham arrive in Uganda and begin preaching from the Book of Mormon, but are stymied by the horrors that their presumed converts are facing. Every time they mention Jesus Christ or paradise, the Ugandan villagers counter with issues of poverty, starvation, and AIDS. Faced with disease, female genital mutilation, and an angry warlord (Oge Agulué), Elders Price and Cunningham slowly realize that their worldview might be skewed.
…the acting and singing were magnificent; every cast member from the leads to the ensemble demonstrated exactly why they were selected for the national tour.
As has come to be expected at Kennedy Center productions, the set and lighting of “The Book of Mormon” were incredible. Scott Pask, Brian MacDevitt, and the crew set the bar high with a creative set and set dressing and exciting lighting effects. The show began with a screen framed by stained glass panels and crowned by a golden statue of the Angel Moroni. Pastel lights shone through the screen to create the heavens. Throughout every scene, the lighting and set came together perfectly, and everything was well-executed; highly technical fixtures like the fly and lighting systems for the hell scene ran as smoothly as the disco ball lighting and minimal staging of the song “You and Me (But Mostly Me).” A particular highlight was the close of a scene when the lighting and curtains came created a Looney Toon-esque ending, framing the actors in a shrinking rectangle at center stage before fading to black. The innovation of the design team kept the show exciting and novel.
Additionally, the acting and singing were magnificent; every cast member from the leads to the ensemble demonstrated exactly why they were selected for the national tour. Kim Exum as Nabulungi and Conner Peirson as Elder Cunningham were impressive. Exum’s performance adds depth to the Ugandan village and prevents it from becoming solely a plot device. Her vocal talent as well as the richness with which she portrays Nabulungi carry the show. Peirson’s blundering, physical portrayal of Elder Cunningham creates the perfect foil to both Nabulungi and the other Mormons. Also of note, Oge Agulué (General), PJ Adzima (Elder McKinley), and Sterling Jarvis (Mafala) all brought their roles to life through the energy and physicality with which they played their characters. Each of their roles was satirical, but they remained true to their characters, rendering the show even funnier by appearing not to be in on the jokes.
Though the songs were written to be deliberately kitschy, almost to the point of parodying musical theatre, the cast performed them earnestly and nailed even the more complex harmonies. Throughout the show, minor cast members would belt incredible notes out of nowhere. The songs “Hello,” “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” and “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day” stood out in particular. Complementing the breathtaking vocals were Casey Nicholaw’s choreography and Glen Kelly’s dance arrangements. Despite the lung capacity needed for each of the many songs, the actors managed to execute complex choreography like tap routines and in sync partner dances. Although the lyrics were sometimes obscured by the music and energetic choreography, the overall performance was unbelievable, filling the Opera House with emotion and bringing the audience to its feet in a standing ovation.
As is to be expected from the creators of “South Park” and “Avenue Q,” “The Book of Mormon” is entirely irreverent. It’s a humorous, yet harsh criticism of the “white savior complex” and the potential hypocrisy in organized religion. Though its songs are catchy and its one-liners well-timed, its piercing satirical commentary caused more than one sharp intake of breath from the audience. Additionally, one could, as NPR’s Janice Simpson did, critique the show for its portrayal of Ugandans and its willingness to rely on caricatures of Africans to make a point. All this is to say, that audiences should be prepared for the impious and even offensive humor of the show. This sort of show might not be your cup of tea, but if it is, The Kennedy Center staged a brilliant performance.
Advisory: This show contains violence, adult language, and mature themes.
“The Book of Mormon Second National Tour” will be playing from October 24, 2017, through November 19, 2017, at The Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St NW Washington, DC 20566. Performance time is 2 and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission. Ticket information can be found here or by calling (202) 467-4600.