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‘The Book of Mormon’ is delightfully irreverent

| Saturday, April 30, 2016

As I scurry down Michigan Street at 7:23 p.m., I am asked by a man in a tie and name-tag if I am interested in a copy of the Book of Mormon. In my hurry, I politely say, “No, thank you,” to the missionary, and since that moment I have wondered whether this was an interactive part of the production or a clever evangelical taking advantage of the opportunity.

In any case, the South Bend Broadway Theatre League has brought the smash hit “The Book of Mormon” to Morris Performing Arts Center, and the satirical tale of two young Mormons on their missionary adventure to Uganda is outrageous in the best way.

You might expect laughter to come at the expense of the Mormon minority, but Mormons will find themselves only slightly more offended than everyone else. Their story does take a few hits, like the laughter brought on by the song “I Believe” when, following a few statements that sound like any Christian creed, it professes, “I believe that ancient Jews built ships and sailed to America.” However, the play certainly does not take a negative stance on beliefs that seem far-fetched.

The Church of Latter Day Saints doesn’t seem put off by the play: Three pages of program advertisement is filled with clever phrases like, “The book is always better.”

To anyone who has watched South Park, it makes sense that Trey Parker and Matt Stone refuse to focus solely on Mormonism. Along with Robert Lopez, they continue the trend of intertwining themes. What’s really the main focus is the naivete of the young missionaries who want to save the world, and the blind privilege of those who live in paradises like “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.”

The “Book of Mormon” is extremely bawdy without being entirely tasteless. The singer in Lion King garb who appears on stage when the trip to Africa is introduced is cringe-inducingly overdone, so it’s a relief when she reveals herself as neighbor in costume, and the scene exchanges for a more down-to-earth image of a Ugandan village.

Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) humanizes the archetype of the golden boy as his faith and idealism are tested. His mission partner Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand) is the perfect foil to Price as a lovable outcast. Cunningham’s look could not have been more perfected in a drawing. Not only his short stature and goofy mannerisms contrast the group of golden-boys when he appears onstage, his nasally “Hello!” stands out audibly among the chorus.

Nubulungi (Candace Quarrels), one of the more serious characters, is the only person in her village with any hope left. In her musical number “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” it’s easy to forget you’re watching a comedy.

The story of “Book of Mormon” is made of jokes, but the production is certainly taken seriously. The entire theater is transformed in the musical numbers, like in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” when it becomes the fiery pits.

Nothing is off-limits in this play. Even baptism is made raunchy in “Baptize You.” Suppressing gay thoughts is encouraged in the delightful tap number “Turn it Off.” Anything you may have thought was strange about the Mormon faith will pale in comparison to the outrageous tale of “American Moses.”

The unsurpassed highlight comes in the first act with “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” The dance-worthy tribal beat is juxtaposed with depressing lyrics such as “80 percent of us have AIDS.” As village leader Mafala (Sterling Jarvis) explains, “Having a saying makes it all seem better.” This turns out to be a major theme of the musical.

All the fun and games doesn’t come without a guilty poignancy. Laughing feels strange while you consider AIDS, poverty and genital mutilation. The overwhelming impact of “Book of Mormon” is fun. And yet, you’ll also need the comfort of the assurance that “tomorrow is a latter day.”

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