PPAC's "Book of Mormon": This Is the Place

Monica L. Patton, David Larsen & Cody Jamison Strand in "Book of Mormon"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Have faith. The “Book of Mormon”, that outrageous musical that took Broadway by storm (and continues to do so with sold-out performances), is back proselytizing the Book, Music and Lyrics by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park), and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q). Irreverent, blasphemous and bawdy, it was a huge commercial and critical hit, surprisingly so when one considers some of the words and plot points. Against all odds, this raunchily creative wonder won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical of the 2011 season. Now, four years later, it's still easy to see why it has been so successful. There are so many fine points to this show that you can easily overlook its over-the-top political incorrectness and in-your-face humor. If you haven't experienced it yet (or even if you have and need a refresher course of not-so-old-time religion), be advised that, to paraphrase Mormon founder Joseph Smith, one can safely say of the Providence Performing Arts Center that this is the place to be.

The story begins in ancient upstate New York, where the prophet Mormon gives golden plates (about the history of his people) to his son Moroni, who buries them in hopes that someone will someday dig them up. Fast forward to a few centuries later, and that's exactly what happens, as the Church of Latter Day Saints is founded when they are rediscovered by Joseph Smith (Edward Watts). The modern story concerns the assignments of a group of young Mormon missionaries (“Hello”), including Elder Price (David Larsen) who had hoped to be sent to Orlando but instead finds himself headed for Uganda, with his fellow missionary Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), ("Two by Two”). Cunningham is the less confident of the pair, though Price has enough confidence for the two of them (“You and Me, but Mostly Me”). In Uganda they encounter their guide Mafala (James Vincent Meredith) and his daughter Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels), who joyously sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (and do not expect a translation here, there may be children present) as well as Elder McKinley (Daxton Bloomquist), who advises Price to go slowly (“Turn It Off”) and has yet to baptize a single convert. The local General (David Aron Damane), in fact, decrees that all of the tribal women must be circumcised. Meanwhile, although Cunningham has assured Price of his loyalty (“I Am Here for You”), the people are unimpressed (“All-American Prophet”) especially about the paradisiacal “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (yes, that's Salt Lake City). Price and Cunningham have a falling out, leaving the missionary work in Cunningham's inventive hands, as he vows to “Man Up”.

The story continues in the second act wherein, thanks to a few major embellishments in his communicating the Mormon story (“Making Things Up Again”), Elder Cunningham manages to convince ten volunteers to be baptized (“Baptize Me”), rescuing Price from his depression (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”) and restoring his faith (“I Believe”). The Mormon authorities are thrilled until they learn exactly what stories the people have been told. Elder Price, said to have been eaten by lions, suddenly reappears before the people and they proclaim their belief in this miraculously reborn messenger prophet as he proclaims his oneness with the people (“I Am Africa”). The tribe puts on a pageant (“Joseph Smith, American Moses”) which exposes the made-up message conveyed by Cunningham. The Mormon heads are horrified and leave in disgust, while the people promise their new-found Book of Arnold (Cunningham, that is) will change everyone's life, for “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day”.

The show is a love letter to Broadway, with references, some subtle and some not, to such previous works as “Bye Bye Birdie” (in its opening number, “Hello”), “The Lion King”, and “The King and I” (with its hysterical take on “Small House of Uncle Thomas”). Thanks to the efforts of its Co-Directors, Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also created the unforgettably lively choreography), as well as a swell cast led by the electric Larsen (a superb singer who moves extraordinarily well) and the powerful Quarrels, the show has been kept fresh in several senses of the word. Only the unrestrained performance of Strand detracted, though he seemed toned down in the second act, perhaps adjusting to the venue; he was hilarious, in fact, in his delivery of his mangled names for Quarrel's character, Nabulungi, from “Neosporin” to “Neutrogena”. The Set Design by Scott Pask, Costume Design by Ann Roth, Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt and Sound Design by Brian Ronan were all on a par with the New York version, and all ended well save for the Doctor (Melvin Brandon Logan) whose repeated refrain was “there are maggots in my scrotum” (and no, that's not a typo).

One could understand why the New York Times reviewer proclaimed this (a bit prematurely) “the musical of the century”. The four years since have given us such milestones as “Fun Home” and, most especially, “Hamilton”. Nonetheless, this is way up there with the finest of Broadway-birthed productions, and to all its rave notices one can only respond Amen! Let's admit it: they had us with “Hello”.

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