Add off-the-charts energy to side-splitting, cringe-worthy comedy with a political bent and you might think South Park. You wouldn’t be far off. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the four-time Emmy Award-winning animated series, and Avenue Q: The Musical co-creator Robert Lopez have collaborated to create “the best musical of the century,” according to Ben Brantley of the The New York Times: The Book of Mormon.
The show has just returned to the Durham Performing Arts Center; and if last night’s packed house was any indication, tickets will be at a premium. From the moment that the energetic cast filled the stage until the rousing finale, DPAC‘s audience roared their enthusiastic approval.
Yes, The Book of Mormon is a hit. A rollicking, nose-snorting, politically incorrect smash that brought hordes of Triangle theater-lovers out on a night when the heavens unleashed their own glory on Durham’s own theater, ranked #2 in the whole United States.
From the first moment, when the guys in white shirts/black ties (the Mormon “uniform”) fill the stage to introduce themselves in “Hello,” you know that their enthusiasm for ringing doorbells to introduce people to their philosophy is a bit forced. Little by little, the Elders reveal themselves and their idiosyncrasies; and the story is set in motion for the “two-by-two” assignments to missionary posts. Our heroes, Elder Price/Kevin Clay (who is dreaming of Orlando, FL, and dismayed by an assignment to Uganda) and Elder Cunningham/Conner Peirson (who just wants to please everyone, so much so that he lies constantly) are sent to Africa to spread the word of the gospel of the American Jesus.
As dedicated as the men are in their enthusiasm to share Joseph Smith’s vision, they also share a bit of doubt that the golden tablets buried on a hill actually existed. That doubt, hidden under too-bright smiles and an unflagging dedication to their mission, threads through the story. One senses if an Elder were to tug a bit at that thread, the whole Mormon history would fall apart, but none are willing to do so.
Each of the young Elders has a history of his own and the Elders’ human peccadilloes are what fleshes out this ebullient and irreverent tale. Elder Price, played with appropriate ramrod stiffness, by Kevin Clay, longs for the storybook façade of Orlando, dreaming of visiting the Walt Disney World Resort and SeaWorld® Orlando, a vision cemented in his childhood and luring him with its impossible brilliance. He also needs to reiterate (both to himself and to his “companion,” Elder Cunningham) that it’s all about him. He cares little for what anyone else thinks.
Elder Cunningham, on the other hand, is rooted in his own reality. He knows that he’s the odd man out, always awkward, inventing lies to cover his insecurity, and comfortable with being Price’s wing man. That coming-of-age awkwardness that they each experience fuels their interactions with the people whom they meet in Uganda.
Let’s stop here to reiterate that this musical isn’t the kind you’d take your children to. It’s raucous and rowdy and beyond irreverent. The f-bomb is dropped casually, sex is discussed regularly, and race and prejudice are displayed transparently. That said, there are times that you can’t hear the next line because the audience’s cackles drown out the actors.
Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone are known for shocking their audience with razor-sharp commentary on the aspects of humanity that make you shake your head. In The Book of Mormon, they zero in on religious zealots, questioning the verity of the religion as well as the zealots themselves. But this musical is not only about an improbably paradise and the questionable practices of a religion often misunderstood.
The Book of Mormon takes on larger topics. Much larger topics. When Elder Price and Elder Cunningham infiltrate a group of villagers where the Mormons have had zero luck baptizing any into their faith, the history of white domination is examined and eviscerated.
Commentary on the way missionaries historically believe that other people need the religion that the missionaries preach is perfectly skewered. Elder Cunningham’s need for love and acceptance catapults him to another level when he starts preaching to the villagers, telling them his version of the Book. His version, however, is skewed to whatever he believes the villagers want to hear, and his way of storytelling incorporates the fantastical elements that he’s found in other stories.
Unfortunately, Elder Cunningham’s fictional creatures (Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Yoda) are as unable to help save the villagers from the evil General (Corey Jones) as Cunningham is himself (or, on a much deeper level, Mormonism). But he does convince them to stand up for what they believe, even though the stories they now believe in are as unbelievable as Joseph Smith’s discovery of gold plates buried in his back yard, plates that ultimately become The Book of Mormon.
Elder Cunningham’s own coming-of-age is tied to his success with the villagers, as well as with Nabulungi (Kayla Pecchioni), the young girl who lives with the specters of AIDS, female castration, poverty, and famine, yet manages to remain happy. The two are oddly attracted to each other, and their “Baptize Me” duet is a hilarious romp that puts both their singing and comedic skills on full display.
Sexual politics don’t end with that unlikely pair. Elders recount their faults in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” from eating donuts to liking other men; but the weightiness of crimes committed against humanity seems the equivalent of eating that donut; and by the end of the scene, the audience is losing its breath trying to keep up with the litany of confessions.
The constant high-level of energy in this show starts at the very beginning and continues until the last moments. Cast members sing, dance, act, move scenery, and keep their plastic smiles throughout; but there are some definite stars. Kevin Clay and Conner Peirson are perfect foils for each other, and Peirson, especially, shines like a young Jack Black, capable of song, extraordinarily demanding dance, and comedic timing.
Kayla Pecchioni is perfect as a not-so-innocent young girl on the verge of learning about the world around her. Andy Huntington Jones can silence an audience with a simple lift of his eyebrows; and his moments on stage during “I Am Africa” are priceless.
But, perhaps, the biggest stars of The Book of Mormon are the ones you don’t see: the writers. There are some lines that slip into the script almost unnoticed, yet they resonate with contemporary knowledge and ironically reveal greater truths about Americans and religion as a whole. The writers have a talent of flipping the ends of their lines, providing a comedic twist in unexpected ways that make you laugh uncomfortably. They bring the social mirror up close to our noses, forcing us to look at ourselves and our own ridiculousness as human beings. They make us wonder about our own kneejerk reactions and caution us to pay attention to them.
However, none of us can ever totally flip a switch and “Turn It Off” as the Elders say they do. And the comment Nabulungi makes when she realizes the faults of white religion is apropos. Perhaps, “Salt Lake City isn’t an actual place,” as she says. “Maybe it’s a metaphor” just like Disney World®.
For a show that will tease your funny bone (while you’re wincing), rock your world with song and dance, and make you think more deeply about your own prejudices, there is no other that is better. Seats are at a premium for this winner of nine Tony Awards®, so if you want to see the Elders kicking up their heels, better do so quickly. The Book of Mormon shows at DPAC through Sunday, August 12th.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 9th Burlington, NC Times-News review by Nick Chester for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/book-of-mormon-is-high-energy-hilarity/ and Aug. 1st preview by Nick Chester for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/touring-the-country-doing-what-she-loves-uncg-grad-a-part-of-book-of-mormon-national-touring-production/; Aug. 9th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/08/dpacs-the-book-of-mormon-is-delightful-and-deep-from-beginning-to-end/; Aug. 8th Raleigh, NC ABC11/WTVD-TV interview with actor Kevin Clay, who plays Elder Price, conducted by Julie Wilson: https://abc11.com/entertainment/book-of-mormon-returns-to-dpac/3901384/; Aug. 8th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Brian Howe: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-book-of-mormon/Event?oid=16741616; Aug. 8th Raleigh, NC Spectrum News Central NC interview with actor Kevin Clay, who plays Elder Price, conducted by Tara Herrschaft: http://spectrumlocalnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/in-depth/2018/08/08/in-depth—the-book-of-mormon-returns-to-nc; July 31st Raleigh, NC WRAL.com preview by Kathy Hanrahan for “What’s on Tap”: https://www.wral.com/-book-of-mormon-celebrates-faith-humor-/17704428/; July 29th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: https://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article215505405.html; and May 7th Columbia, SC The State interview with actor Kevin Clay, who plays Elder Price, conducted by McKayla Parker Jacobs: https://www.thestate.com/entertainment/local-events/article210642119.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 7th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/08/bungles-in-the-jungle-become-bellylaughs-on-aug-7-12-when-the-book-of-mormon-plays-dpac-again/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents THE BOOK OF MORMON at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9, 8 p.m. Aug. 10, 2 and 8 p.m. Aug. 11, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 12 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $29 and up, plus taxes and fees. Note: There will be a $25-per-ticket lottery, starting 2.5 hours before each performance. Click here, scroll down, and click LOTTERY for details.
DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/where-to-buy.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/369510/1732682.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
SHOW: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/the-book-of-mormon-2 and https://www.facebook.com/events/372504679919327/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/user/BookOfMormonBroadway.
DPAC NEWS RELEASES: https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/the-book-of-mormon-announces-lottery-ticket-policy-at-dpac-2 and https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/the-book-of-mormon-on-sale-may-5.
DPAC‘S 2018-19 “IT’S OUR NEW YORK, NEW YORK” SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: https://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series-2018-19.
THE TOUR: https://bookofmormonbroadway.com/tour, https://www.ibdb.com/tour-production/the-book-of-mormon-jumamosi-499334, https://www.facebook.com/TheBookOfMormonOnBroadway, https://twitter.com/BookofMormon, and https://www.youtube.com/user/BookOfMormonBroadway.
TOUR CAST & CREATIVE TEAM: https://bookofmormonbroadway.com/national-tour.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center.
The Book of Mormon (2011 Broadway and 2013 West End musical): http://www.bookofmormonthemusical.com/ (official website), http://www.bookofmormonbroadway.com/ (official North American website), http://bookofmormonlondon.com/home.php (official London website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-book-of-mormon-488720 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.facebook.com/TheBookOfMormonOnBroadway (Facebook page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Mormon_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).
Trey Parker (co-director and music, lyrics, and book): http://bookofmormonbroadway.com/second-national-tour (tour bio), http://southpark.cc.com/about/creator-bios (official South Park bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/trey-parker-488723 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005295/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trey_Parker (Wikipedia).
Robert Lopez (music, lyrics, and book): http://bookofmormonbroadway.com/second-national-tour (tour bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/robert-lopez-109408 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0520188/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/bobbylopez1 (Facebook page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Lopez (Wikipedia).
Matt Stone (music, lyrics, and book): http://bookofmormonbroadway.com/second-national-tour (tour bio), http://southpark.cc.com/about/creator-bios (official South Park bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/matt-stone-488722 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001778/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Stone (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.