‘Book’ smarts

Posted on 30 Aug 2013 at 8:00am

Outrageous, gay-friendly musical ‘Book of Mormon’ preys while it prays

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WE ARE AFRICA | Two whitebread missionaries — one devout, one doltish — find themselves faced with conversion challenges when sent to an AIDS-ravaged African village in the racy musical.

 

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Screen shot 2013-08-28 at 3.58.19 PMIn The Producers, two impresarios fashion a musical so offensive — one where Hitler sings and dances his way through Europe — that the show will certainly flop and they can make off with investors’ money. In the film version, there’s a shot of the opening night audience, their mouths agape in horror sitting dumbstruck by the travesty before them.

I saw those expressions several times on the opening night audience during The Book of Mormon at the Winspear. For all its whitebread joyfulness, the show WANTS to offend and shock. It succeeds. It’s also entertaining as hell.

It may be the goofy, Old Broadway traditionalness that works its insidious magic. The opening number, where an army of young missionary men ring doorbells evangelizing about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is tuneful and funny and whiter than a glass of milk in a blizzard. So when the missionaries end up in an AIDS-ravaged Ugandan village terrorized by a warlord, it’s not just the Mormons who feel out of place — it’s the audience who were lulled into expecting Annie.

The author/composers — Trey Parker and Matt South Park and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q — know this. They appear to have an encyclopedic knowledge of classic B’way musicals. Many of the catchy, smartass songs echo counterparts in other shows, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (The King and I) to “Tevye’s Dream” (Fiddler) to “Ya Got Trouble” (The Music Man). The score is a portmanteau of gimmicks set incongruously amid Mormons in subsaharan Africa. That’s what undercuts to abrasive comedy: It’s all familiar.

It’s an equal opportunity offender: jokes not just about Mormons, but all religions, AIDS, closeted gays, black people, Bono. … No one gets away unscathed.

The gags reveal a very gay sensibility that, after the fiasco of Prop 8, feels like rough justice. All the Mormon women are men in drag, and Greg Henson as a tap-dancing closet case (and then men-on-men dance numbers) gives a welcome fabulosity.

The two main missionaries — upright Elder Price (Mark Evans) and screw-up Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) — are great, with O’Neill actually surpassing the Broadway actor (he’s genuinely endearing, not just a crass moron). But the show leaves room for hilarious work from Samantha Marie Ware as a prospective convert, whose voice is more powerful than her frame should allow.

They all imbue The Book of Mormon with an ecstatic energy that borders on rapture. And if some Dallas audiences can’t handle that … well, hallelujah anyway.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 30, 2013.

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