By Brad Haynes
The Book of Mormon, the Tony-award winning musical written by those guys best known for South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Avenue Q creator and Frozen songwriter Robert Lopez, was the toast of Broadway when it debuted in 2011.
Orlando audiences had to wait until 2013 for the 1st national tour to work its way to the Bob Carr PAC and then were treated again a year later when The Book of Mormon returned again to the Dr. Phillips Center. Now it’s back once more through Sunday at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts AND it’s just as delightful as ever. Hello! And welcome back!
On paper, it’s hard to believe The Book of Mormon would have looked like a theatrical success. The musical tells the tale of Mormon missionaries Elder Price (Kevin Clay) and Elder Cunningham (Conner Pierson) who head to the jungles of AIDs stricken Uganda to spread the Mormon word. But it’s the amazing balancing act of heart and profane satire (yes, the show’s satire is at once both sacrilegious and profane) that Parker, Stone and Lopez manage to pull off that make it a true miracle.
The overly self-confident Elder Price, played with a winning swagger by Clay, finds himself paired with the socially inept Elder Cunningham as they head off to Uganda to begin their work. And while Price is disappointed that the mission will not occur in his favorite place in the world…which just so happens to be Orlando, a reference delivered many times throughout the show to the delight of the hometown crowd…he vows to make the most out of the apparent odd couple relationship. That is, until he gets to Africa and is confronted with the abysmal conditions, leaving Elder Cunningham to find the courage within himself to save the day.
Pierson’s portrayal of Elder Cunningham is an amazing feat, bringing his own amazing energies and talents to the role to make it all his own. Forget any other actor you may have seen play the eccentric elder, Pierson’s take on the character is totally fresh. He takes on the lovable doofus full force, winning his way into the hearts of both the audience and African village ingenue Nabulungi (nicely played by Kayla Pecchioni), whose name is hilariously skewered every time Elder Cunningham tries to say it.
As much as anything, The Book of Mormon is a loving tribute to musical theatre itself. “Hasa Diga Ebowai” is an obvious takeoff on “Hakuna Mata” from The Lion King, although the translation of the song’s title is a long way from “no worries for the rest of your days!”
Classic musical theatre also finds representation in the show with the show’s opening number, “Hello,” harkening back to “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie, and the group number “Joseph Smith American Moses” finding its inspiration in The King and I‘s foreign translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Small House of Uncle Thomas.”
On first glance, The Book of Mormon may appear to be mocking the Mormon religion, but that is far from the case. The show’s true message is in believing…believing those things which may seem outlandish to some, but that provide true meaning to many others, like just about every religion you can possibly name.
But the even deeper belief to be found is a personal one…the belief in one’s self. Don’t be surprised if at the end of this raucous evening of entertainment you happen to find a few tears swelling up. It’s that mix of the sweet and the sour, blended perfectly, that makes The Book of Mormon a very special show indeed.
The Book of Mormon plays the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. through Friday, December 15; at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, December 16; and at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, December 17. Click here to purchase tickets.