Tuesday night, the faithfully unfaithful packed the Eccles Theater for the second night of a 20-day run of The Book of Mormon. Here, in the shadow of the LDS Church headquarters just one block away, attending this particular play takes on a not-so-subtle and very personal significance. No mere night at the theater, this is an irreligious revival, internal primal-scream therapy for recovering Mormons, gentiles and perhaps even a bicurious temple-recommend holder or two.
The buzzy chatty attendees wore their Sunday best (or, sadly, jean shorts and flip flops) and were positively giddy as they streamed into the building. This crowd was pumped like it was Game Six of Jazz vs. Bulls and the performers were about to enjoy the closest thing to home-court advantage that a touring Broadway cast ever gets.
The musical, which is a very good musical, is a raunchy send up of some of the most sacred and strange beliefs of the LDS Church. Following the trials of two earnest young LDS Missionaries—Elders Price (Gabe Gibbs) Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson)—who are sent to preach the gospel in Uganda, The Book of Mormon is a caricatured contrast between well-intentioned and gloriously naive first worlders confronting a cartoon of the third world from the perverted minds of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
From the first bell ring announcing there’s a missionary at the door, the crowd was entranced with the unvarnished sacrilege unfolding on stage. Growing up Mormon in Utah, I get it. This is more than a play for us. For many, attendance and enjoyment are part of a cathartic process, deeply affecting, like standing up in a recovery meeting and saying “Hi, my name is Jeremy and I’m a Mormon.” There are things said in this play that years later jar loose some of those pieces of faith-based shrapnel rattling around in my psyche. And there’s a giddy guilt to sitting in a crowd of the equally damaged, laughing right past what we once considered blasphemy.
The touring cast, on the second night was still getting their Utah legs and is tuning the timing of laugh lines that probably didn’t play in Peoria but are warmly received with guffaws and applause here. We, after all, know these Elders. Some in the audience were actually missionaries in their former lives and even for those of us who never served a mission, the small details, like the little portrait of the friendly Mormon Jesus in the missionary home, get our attention. At intermission, I spoke with KRCL’s Lara Jones who told me the opening scenes gave her “flashbacks to Mormon roadshows, which made me nauseous. But then it kicked into gear. Even though I’m not a churchgoer these days, I wondered how I’d ever explain the jokes to my family and that I laughed at every single one of the punchlines.”
Jones is spot on with her flashback to roadshows, which were amateur theater competitions among wards that toured around the stake and region. They often included Best Christmas Pageant Ever-style pantomimes of early church history moments. The musical makes use of similar tableaus to sarcastically explain LDS Church theology and to make Jesus talk like Eric Cartman, the child cynic from South Park. This inmate understanding that the Utah audience brings is something of a double-edged sword for the cast. On one hand, they have us at “Hello, My Name is Elder Price,” but on the other, we notice when they are going a little heavy on the caricature. That said, it’s a line that all of the actors in white short sleeves and ties walk well. I expect, as the run continues, they’ll get better at.
But rest assured, beyond all the audience-lugged baggage at the Eccles last night, this is a solid production, well sung and danced. Gibbs and especially Peirson shine brightly in the staring roles. Myha’la Herrold as heroine Nalulungi has got some big old pipes hiding within her diminutive frame. Her break out song in the first act “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (Salt Lake City) brought the house down like Alice Cooper giving a “Hello Cleveland! You ready to rock?”
Having seen this play with the original cast, my only quibble was with Elder McKinley, the closeted missionary played by PJ Adzima, who is entrusted with the hilarious show stopper “Turn it Off” about how shoving down emotional trauma is the Mormon way. He seemed like the least gay elder up there and where some of the actors wearing missionary placards, including Gibbs’ Elder Price, could dial down the camp, Adizma needs to dial it up.
And although it’s been said a lot, this isn’t just some ruthless tear down of Mormons. It ridicules beliefs and the institution with out mercy, but backs off on actual humans. The attacks are philosophical not personal. In the end all the missionaries are just a bunch of naive kids trying to figure it out.
If you’ve heard all the fuss, go check it out for yourself. I mean wasn’t that what Joseph Smith was all about, finding out for himself? Maybe you’ll find some golden plates buried in your own back yard. Just be sure to bury them again, down deep.
The Book of Mormon runs through Aug. 20, 2017 at The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater. Tickets and information here. Additionally, the producers have added a daily ticket lottery. Enter to win $30 tickets here.