Stage

Famous Artists Musical Takes Missionary Position

Book Of Mormon

The Book of Mormon coming to The Landmark Theatre

The edgy, irreverent, sometimes profane cartoon satire South Park has been a part of the landscape so long, some playgoers might feel it is a known quantity. Something happened, however, when that energy moved from the tube to the stage.

Viewers-turned-playgoers are likely surprised at a first viewing of the Tony Award-winning smash hit The Book of Mormon, written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone with songwriter Robert Lopez (Avenue Q). Up close it is a genuine Broadway musical that both loves and spoofs the genre. You don’t have to listen too closely to hear parodies of West Side Story, Wicked, Bye Bye Birdie or Tom Lehrer’s patter songs. Rare for any Broadway show these days, the score has found its own audience, becoming the fastest-selling show tune cast album in iTunes history. A second reverse of expectations is Book’s disarming sweetness. Author Trey Parker says he thinks of the show as an “atheist’s love letter to organized religion.”

After training in Utah, two young missionaries hoping to go to Orlando find themselves in Uganda instead, in an area rife with poverty and AIDS, ruled by a brutal dictator. The locals, who first rob the missionaries, amuse themselves by singing a song of hair-raising blasphemy. The neighborhood tyrant is obsessed with female genital mutilation: He’s crazy about it. This brings out the protective instinct in the male missionaries, hoping to spare damsels in distress. But the missionaries are not terribly well-schooled in the actual Book of Mormon. And the mission to spread the faith is a hard sell. But the well-intentioned Mormons are doing better in real-world pursuits by the final curtain.

Although nearly as numerous (5.6 million) as Jews (6.7 million), Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, don’t get their share of air time in popular culture. When they do, they are often seen as peculiar and exotic, even though many are the sort of well-groomed types that might populate a Norman Rockwell painting. Think Angels in America or HBO’s Big Love. Even with the nearby Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra harkening to Mormonism’s origins in upstate New York, most local audiences will probably enter the performance of The Book of Mormon not being sure why members call themselves “Latter-day Saints.” Most religions (Unitarianism excepted) promote beliefs that defy the laws of nature, and the Book of Mormon found in 19th-century America does, too.

Monica L. Patton, David Larsen and Cody Jamison Strand in 'The Book of Mormon.'  Joan Marcus photo.

Monica L. Patton, David Larsen and Cody Jamison Strand in ‘The Book of Mormon.’
Joan Marcus photo.

Within living memory, organized religion was, well, sacred when it came to satire. But hasn’t that changed? The works of Mel Brooks and others mean that now most Americans know at least one Jewish joke, even if it is bad manners to repeat it. The long-running Nunsense franchise found hilarity in cooking for the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary). Even laced-up Lutherans have found their inner clowns in Church Basement Ladies.

Your fearless reviewer, without intending to, has done consumer research on how the show has been received. At Hotel Edison on 47th Street in 2011, I was having breakfast while a group of casually dressed professional women were making a racket at the next table. They were humming songs and high-fiving each other with delight as they remembered different gags in the then-new Book of Mormon. I had just seen War Horse, a terrific performance, but their high spirits meant that the exchanges were all going one way. They had all driven up from Virginia to see it.

I asked them if they thought Mormons would be put off by the gags. A silence fell over the table. “We’re all Mormons,” one confessed. Then she added, “My parents might have a hard time sitting though it all, especially some of the language.”

Other voices chipped in that the Mormons are the good guys by the end, and all confirmed that their commitment to their faith was unchanged.

Religious historian Richard Bushman explains the musical this way:  “Mormons experience the show like looking at a funhouse mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really you. The nose is yours but swollen out of proportion.”

In some cities the Church of the Latter-day Saints has taken out playbill ads that read, “You’ve seen the show. Now read the Book. The Book is always better.”

Famous Artists is bringing the second national tour to downtown’s Landmark Theatre, starting Tuesday, Oct. 21. In June 2015, that same production will open in Salt Lake City.

The Book of Mormon has performances on Tuesday, Oct. 21, through Thursday, Oct. 23, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 24, 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 25, 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 26, 1 and 6:30 p.m.; at the Landmark Theatre, 362 S. Salina St. Call 475-7980 for details.

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