By Richard Ades
The Book of Mormon has finally arrived in Columbus, and I’ve now had the chance to form a second opinion on the show I saw nearly a year ago on Broadway.
That opinion: I like it even better the second time.
Admittedly, the first act was a bit of a letdown when I attended the show Wednesday at the Ohio Theatre, partly because it had lost the element of surprise. But the second act delivered even more of a payoff, both comically and emotionally.
Emotionally? Yes. This hit musical by Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone does have some inspiring and heartfelt moments in between all the F-bombs and sexual references.
You’ve probably heard that The Book of Mormon takes a satirical look at the titular faith, including its odd belief that Jesus visited what is now upper-state New York during the brief time between his crucifixion and his resurrection. Yes, it has religious zingers aplenty, and they’re both sly and hilarious. At its core, though, this is the story of a friendship between two young missionaries.
Elder Kevin Price (Mark Evans) is the fair-haired child of his missionary class, so flawless that people assume “Heavenly Father” will grant him any wish he desires. And what Kevin desires is to be assigned to spread the Mormon message in Disney-fied Orlando, which he considers the most perfect place on earth.
Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) is Kevin’s opposite, a roly-poly ne’er-do-well with a propensity for stretching the truth. Kevin is chagrined to learn that he and Arnold have been assigned to spend their two-year mission together, and he’s even more chagrined to learn that they’ll be spending it in northern Uganda.
His chagrin turns to terror when he learns that the local people are oppressed not only by poverty, AIDS and superstition, but by a warlord who threatens to “circumcise” (i.e., genitally mutilate) all the women. After the colorfully named General Butt Fucking Naked (Corey Jones) proves his ruthlessness by shooting a detractor in the face, Kevin decides his best option is to request a transfer out of this godforsaken land.
The Book of Mormon’s success depends most heavily on Arnold, an irresponsible scamp who ultimately is forced to Man Up, as he sings in the rousing number that caps off Act 1. In the touring production at the Ohio, O’Neill hits every note just right whether he’s singing or speaking. Over the show’s 2½ hours, he builds a portrayal of a lovably needy but surprisingly resourceful man-child.
Evans also hits every note just right as Kevin, revealing a sweet voice and an innate decency hiding just beneath the character’s self-important surface. He even projects a modicum of vulnerability after a guilty conscience lands Kevin in the middle of a Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. The gaudy musical number surrounds him with threatening demons, a dismissive Jesus and even dancing Starbucks cups. (Mormons, of course, are forbidden from drinking either alcohol or caffeine.)
The show’s third important character is Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube), a young village woman who responds to the Mormon message because it offers her hope in a hopeless world. Ncube projects charming naiveté and a beautiful singing voice, particularly in her wistful solo Sal Tlay Ka Siti.
Parker co-directs the large and energetic cast with choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who fills the production numbers with clever, spirited dance steps. Justin Mendoza conducts the orchestra, which puts forth a full and satisfying sound despite relying heavily on keyboards. Scott Pask’s scenery, augmented by Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, efficiently moves the action from continent to continent and century to century as needed.
Though The Book of Mormon delights in ridiculing the most eccentric beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it can’t really be described as anti-religious. It accepts and even celebrates religion’s ability to offer hope to people who need it.
The show may not inspire to re-evaluate your beliefs the next time men in white shirts and dark ties ring your doorbell, but you probably won’t slam your door in their faces, either.
Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The Book of Mormon through May 25 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $43-$145. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.