THE BOOK OF MORMON
By Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone
Dallas Summer Musicals
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
Choreography by Casey Nicholaw
Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangements – Stephen Oremus
Scenic Design – Scott Pask
Costume Design – Ann Roth
Lighting Design - Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design – Brian Ronan
Hair Design – Josh Marquette
Orchestrations – Larry Hochman & Stephen Oremus
Casting – Carrie Gardner
Production Stage Manager – Paige Grant
Dance Music Arrangements – Glen Kelly
Music Director – Andrew Graham
Music Coordinator – Michael Keller
Associate Producer – Eli Bush
(in order of appearance)
Mormon – Tyler Leahy
Moroni – Andy Huntington Jones
Elder Price – Robert Colvin*
Elder Cunningham – Conner Peirson
Missionary Voice, Price’s Dad – Ron Bohmer
Cunningham’s Dad – Jaron Barney
Mrs. Brown – Monica L. Patton
Guards – Will Lee-Williams, Teddy Trice
Mafala – Jacques C. Smith
Nabulungi – Kayla Pecchioni
Doctor – Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd
Elder McKinley – Andy Huntington Jones
Joseph Smith – Ron Bohmer
General – Corey Jones
Mission President – Ron Bohmer
Ensemble – Jaron Barney, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd, Zach Erhardt, Jeremy Gaston, Eric Geil, Patrick Graver, Bre Jackson, Tyler Leahy, Will Lee-Williams, Josh Marin, Stoney B. Mootoo, Monica L. Patton, Jon Pinto Jr., Connor Russell, Teddy Trice, Brinie Wallace
* Robert Colvin is appearing with the support of Actors’ Equity Association pursuant to an exchange program between American Equity and UK Equity.
Reviewed Performance: 1/30/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The Book of Mormon is the winner of nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It is also flat-out hilarious with dazzling choreography and gorgeous vocals. The director has timed this production down to the second; there is literally never a remotely dull moment. The audience could not stop laughing, and on the way out of the theater, thrilled patrons were talking over each other as they gushed about which funny line was their favorite.
The twisted comic minds who brought us South Park wrote this musical, but you don’t have to be a South Park fan to enjoy it. You do have to accept these rascals lampooning Jesus (He wears a hoop skirt). Metaphorically speaking, they start on planet Irreverent, and then they go one galaxy over. The entire musical could be a winning bet Trey Parker and Matt Stone made -- that they could win a Tony for a play that includes as a running joke, “I have maggots in my scrotum.”
This is an amazing production that you absolutely cannot miss if you remotely like to laugh or enjoy musicals. But one of the most amazing questions for me is:
How did Trey Parker and Matt Stone get away with this? Below are my theories.
1. If you can make people laugh, then you can say anything.
And, if you amass this much talent, with music this great, and original choreography that is a magical coalescence of motion – if it’s just flippin’ fantastic by any artistic standard – then the PC police become too inconvenient.
The story starts in “ancient” upstate New York, where the audience is introduced to the first in a series of scenes comically, if not outright archly, displaying the more improbable points of the Mormon faith.
Quickly, the action transitions to a marvelously entertaining musical number from the Mission training. One white-shirted, black pants and tie wearing, very white boy after another takes the stage, presses an imaginary doorbell, and sings, “Hello, this book will change your life.” As it turns out, they all can dance too, in addition to being divinely cast (no I’m not apologizing for that pun) as improbably cheery enthusiasts singularly devoted to The Book of Mormon. “God loves Mormons and He wants some more.”
The last young man to take the stage is Arnold Cunningham, played by the unforgettably adorable Conner Peirson. The first lines from Cunningham’s mouth set the stage for the character’s story arc. He enthusiastically asks the imaginary resident, “Do you want to change religions?”, and then a voice-over reprimands him for going off script.
This is ultimately a buddy story about two seeming opposites, which is a standard comedy blue print that works here. Cunningham is an awkward misfit and an embarrassment to his parents, whose aspiration for him is that he be a follower. Either wisely or not (you decide), Cunningham is paired on his mission with wunderkind Kevin Price, played by Robert Colvin, perfection personified.
2. While they are truly making fun of all religions that have condoned racism and intolerance, require allegiance to impossible historic “facts,” and resort to the inherently supernatural to gain power and manipulate the masses – you can pretend they are just making fun of Mormons.
I do not believe that any one religion should be singled out for ridicule, so I find perverse solace interpreting the text as making fun of other religions too. After all, the Ugandan villagers expressly state that other missionaries show up once a year.
I absolutely adored every single second of Conner Peirson’s performance, and one of many highlights is his character’s “Man Up” song. Jesus did not whine when his father decided to torture him to death, so Elder Cunningham should just get ‘er done too.
One of many musical highlights is the missionaries’ song to “just turn if off; it’s a Mormon trick,” referring to the repression necessary to create an army of relentlessly cheery Ken dolls fitting the robotic Salt Lake City mold. Here Parker and Stone rightly condemn homophobia. What those of us remember from the bad old days when “Can’t I hate the gay for Jah-sus?” was up for debate, is that there is a lot of loony stuff in the Old Testament (if you remember, that was one rebuttal to the hate-is-a-family-value crowd). Remember Deuteronomy 22:11, it is a sin to wear blended cloth? It’s not just The Book of Mormon.
The musical raises serious questions about religion across the board. Karl Marx said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Ludwig Feuerbach said that faith is the illusion that one’s cause is also God’s cause. Both ideas are arguably at play in The Book of Mormon musical.
But I think Sigmund Freud, who viewed a personal god as an “exalted father-figure,” is most relevant here. Both Price and Cunningham carry the imprint of their father’s expectations, or lack thereof. Price has been defined as special, and struggles with the narcissism imposed upon him. He also cannot get over the wonderful vacation he enjoyed at the age of nine, and the implicit promise that his life would be picture perfect. This Disneyland dream quickly morphs into a running Freudian-inspired joke in the play: Mormon Hell. Here and elsewhere, Colvin’s singing and dancing is phenomenally great. And, the set, the costumes, and the lyrics are all hilarious. The Mormon Hell villains include Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, Johnnie Cochran (for getting OJ off; more on racism below), and two singing cups of Starbucks coffee. And naturally a super-sized Satan makes an appearance.
3. On the other hand, if you really want to, you can interpret this play as not entirely anti-Mormon or anti-religious.
If this play is to be interpreted literally, in the end the Missionaries actually do help the village in Uganda. I’m not a spoiler so I’ll speak in code: what is the last line of the guy with the eye patch? They really do solve one of their big problems, in addition to the significant psychological aid.
And, again taking the ending literally, the logical inference is that all of the stuff that Joseph Smith made up was well intentioned on his part. He was shepherding a community through many hardships, and given how kind and cheerful Mormons are, who is to say that making up a bunch of motivational stuff to make people feel better was morally wrong, all things considered?
Here is where the dynamic between Kevin Price (aka Elder Price) and Arnold Cunningham (aka Elder Cunningham) is fascinating. Price is truly harmed by being told that he has to believe that Joseph Smith literally found golden tablets from Jesus buried in his backyard – even though no one ever saw them and he copied the information onto normal paper. “Isn’t that sort of what God is going for?” appears to be the comically unconvincing explanation. Not to mention how the ancient Israelites ended up in upstate New York, or what Jesus was doing there. Parker and Stone keep hitting us with serial scenes from Mormon doctrine, including a hoop-skirted very white Jesus, a spoof on theatrical death scenes by Joseph Smith (Ron Bohmer), and an Angel spouting silliness. It’s great theater culminating in a pointed purpose. Price decides he has to have faith, that his religion mandates that he believe the unbelievable, and this, coupled with the Golden Boy narcissism apparently imposed upon him, leads him to do something very dangerous with excruciatingly painful consequences.
Arnold Cunningham, however, was not remotely harmed by the credibility gap – he didn’t read the book. It bored him. He prefers Star Wars, which turns out to be more useful. The play is wickedly clever. Making stuff up can make people feel better, and can arguably be the lesser of two evils. And in their musical, Parker and Stone have served up some seriously wretched evils.
4. They get away with the awful portrayal of Uganda by pointing to the Lion King, and otherwise calling b.s.
Personally, I think Uganda is insulted more than the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, and I think Parker and Stone preempted the PC police on that score.
It starts with Mrs. Brown at the airport. Thanks to the consistently excellent lighting, we think it is a dream sequence, but it turns out that Elder Price’s father has hired an African American woman, Mrs. Brown, to dress up in a ridiculous costume (witch doctor? Seriously, what is that supposed to be?) to belt out something incomprehensible, all derivative of the Lion King.
Shortly thereafter, Price and Cunningham realize that they are spending the next two years in a village plagued with poverty, disease, pestilence, and the absence of law and order. Most people are good there, but without resources, the bad is overwhelming. Price says, “Africa is nothing like the Lion King. I think that movie took a lot of artistic license.”
Parker and Stone also lampoon the hakuna matata bit; I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say you might want to know what something actually means before singing. And, again, why are there lyrics in the Lion King from no language the audience speaks?
I think Parker and Stone are pointing out that Broadway gushed over a musical that was ostensibly set in Africa, but really put a lot of black people in assorted animal costumes and had them singing a bunch of stuff that is not in a discernible language -- so how many stones can they throw at The Book of Mormon?
Also, while the portrayal of religious doctrine is (ultimately in the very end) a mixed bag, Parker and Stone pull no punches in condemning the fact that the Church of Latter Day Saints – and sadly they were not alone – enabled racism in this country. “In 1978, God changed his mind about black people,” Price says.
5. The cast is SO very loveable.
The dancing is second to none and is highlighted in original choreography. Colvin, and Kayla Pecchioni as Nabulungi, have the voices of angels in addition to being strong actors.
I want to see Conner Peirson in something else before I die, and I don’t think I could see this play without him. He is indescribably, uniquely great. All of the Mission “Elders” are perfectly buff, and they are all perfect dancers, and they are oh-so perfectly handsome. But you know what is more enjoyable? Watching Peirson high kick with a beer belly.
No, really, this guy can dance. The choreography for Arnold Cunningham’s hilarious duet with Nabulungi, wherein getting baptized is a stand-in for intercourse (you have to give it to Parker and Stone for originality), is brilliant. Peirson has some sui generis dance moves here. His performance is a serious work out, which he regularly repeats, proving he is in phenomenal physical shape, but you just know that if he went to a doctor he’d be fat shamed. Living in Dallas, the liposuction capitol of the world (okay, I made that up, but it might be true) – it sucks. Go Peirson. He’s much better than perfect.
Finally, the set design affords a wide array of lightning-fast scene changes while also being visually stunning. Some of the paintings are massive works of majestically beautiful art, and the poverty-stricken Ugandan village is constructed with extraordinary detail.
This production of The Book of Mormon is stunning and succeeds on multiple levels. Do not miss it.
The Book of Mormon
Presented by Dallas Summer Musicals and Broadway Across America
January 29 – February 3
Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First Avenue, Dallas, TX 75210
For information and Tickets call 800 982-2787 or go to DallasSummerMusicals.org.