Tuesday, June 18, 2013
When a Broadway show, even one with the unlikely name “The Book of Mormon” rakes in nine Tony awards including Best Musical plus a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, chances are you’d like to find out what all the excitement is about.
We’d heard glowing reports from friends whose taste and judgment we trusted. Among them, fellow Mount Pleasant residents Harvey Lowe and Sherry Berger-Lowe had seen the musical and loved it.
Sherry found herself “gushing with praise for the brilliant script and wonderfully entertaining music, as well as for the acting of the entire ensemble cast.
“I hadn’t laughed or enjoyed myself this much in the theater since ‘Spamalot.’”
Harvey Lowe felt that “In ‘The Book of Mormon’ the witty scenes and dialogue never ceased. Rip-roaring laughter from lines quickly unleashed – but hardly repeatable - would entice me to see it again.”
Unfortunately, at present there isn’t any proposal to bring the show to Charleston, so Judy and I had a dilemma. We had no immediate plans to be in New York, and London seemed a wee bit far to travel just to see the U.K. production.
Then, we remembered the old adage that if the mountain won’t come to you, well, maybe you just have to go to the mountain.
We had long-standing plans to visit Chicago to see friends and relatives and for Judy to attend her high school reunion. Conveniently, “The Book of Mormon” was nearing the end of its sell-out Chicago run at the Bank of America Theater when we were in town.
Through dumb luck and a very resourceful concierge at the Drake Hotel, we were able to secure the last two seats in the house, in a great location no less, at the last minute. No rational person wants to know how much those ducats set us back. Make that, I don’t want to know how much those ducats set us back.
But, hey, it was cold and rainy in the Windy City, we had no other plans that evening, and the odds were that if we didn’t see the show then, we’d never see it at all. Plus – full disclosure – we knew Matt Stone and Trey Parker, co-creators of “The Book of Mormon,” back in L.A. and had done some work with them when their other smash hit, TV’s “South Park” was just taking off. We were curious to see what this creative duo would do with a musical based on a religion.
The answer to that question was apparent from the opening curtain. They’d come up with an extremely fast-paced, witty and extravagantly funny production that had a little something to offend just about everybody. Which is not to say that “The Book of Mormon” is a slam on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or that its raunchy moments are lewd and rude. Quite to the contrary. Mormonism is given many a well-aimed barb throughout, but the scuttlebutt is that the church, rather than attacking the show, now sees it as something of an introduction of their faith to non-Mormons, and even a bit of a recruiting tool. You know, “You’ve seen the hit musical, now read the book.” That sort of thing. And, the snippets of titillation are miles away from obscene and, literally, do serve to advance the plot.
The crib notes on the show are: Two young Mormon missionaries are preparing to head out on their two year quest to bring their faith to the far corners of the globe.
One, Elder Kevin (why Mormon men barely out of their teens are known as “elders” is one of the mysteries of the religion) is an honest, sincere, straightforward young man with a zeal for spreading the good word. His idea of the appropriate “far corner of the globe” for him is Orlando, Fla., which he remembers fondly from a childhood visit to Disneyworld and Universal Theme Park. Somewhere in the back of his mind he probably envisions converting Mickey and Minnie.
His partner, selected by the Church authorities (all Mormon missionaries live and travel in pairs) is Elder Arnold who, to be charitable, has a very vivid imagination and a tendency to stretch the truth if it suits his purposes. In essence, Arnold is a likeable puppy dog of a young man with no grand designs on saving the world. He doesn’t care where the church sends him, as long as he can be with his “new best friend,” Kevin.
The wheel of fortune spins and Kevin is crushed, appalled, devastated and really, really unhappy to learn that he and Arnold have been assigned to a tiny, beleaguered village in the wilds of Uganda. Arnold, however, is just overjoyed to be going anywhere, as long as Kevin is by his side.
The two arrive in Africa to join a band of colleagues who have never lost their enthusiasm for the mission but, sadly, have failed to convert a single native.
The villagers themselves are a surprisingly charming and upbeat group, particularly considering that they are besieged by poverty, ignorance, disease, a totally ineffective government and a vicious warlord who would just as soon shoot, stab and otherwise dispose of them as look at them.
Armed with the Book of Mormon, Kevin righteously wades into the fray, determined to bring the natives to their senses and his faith and to establish himself as the greatest Mormon missionary ever.
Sadly, like all his predecessors, he, too, fails. And, bewailing his exile in Uganda, perhaps never to see his beloved Orlando again, he is on the verge of walking out on his mission.
Crushed by the potential loss of his mission partner and new best friend, Elder Arnold takes a stab at winning over the villagers his own way. Not nearly as steeped in the church’s teachings as Kevin, but a good deal more imaginative, Arnold soon has captured the minds and hearts of the Africans.
He scores the first baptism the village has ever known, with the comely young maiden Nabalungi.
Before long, the entire village has joined the church and rallied behind Arnold. Even Kevin has returned and seen the wisdom in his missionary partner’s unorthodox and inventive interpretations of the holy book, using its teaching not to change the native people but to help them live better, more fulfilling lives.
Throughout the colorful, non-stop hijinks, “The Book of Mormon” is peppered with lively and memorable songs, among them “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” “Making Things Up Again,” ”Baptize Me” and “Joseph Smith American Moses.” The finale number alone is worth the price of admission. But who wants to spoil the ending?
Although framed in the dogma and practices of Mormonism, the musical is, on a deeper level, all about the rigidity of institutions, and how sometimes a maverick, even an unwitting one like Arnold, has to come along and break the mold to achieve a greater good.
From start to finish, “The Book of Mormon” is an evening of entertainment well worth enjoying. One can only hope that before too many more moons have passed, a touring company of the show will make its way to Charleston. After all, isn’t “Jersey Boys” finally opening here in November?
And, if “The Book of Mormon” doesn’t happen to ever be booked into the Lowcountry, just take a page from the gospel according to of Elder Kevin. For a good time, there’s always Orlando.
Bill Farley moved to the Charleston area from Los Angeles after retiring from his position as vice president of Marketing for Playboy Enterprises, Inc. He is a freelance writer living in Mount Pleasant.