On Stage: Gone South

REVIEW: Few high points in overly hyped “Book of Mormon.”

"The Book of Mormon" at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by xxxxxxxxxxxxxx)

“The Book of Mormon” at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by Joan Marcus 2013)

“The Book of Mormon” arrived at the Kennedy Center a roaring smash, even before tickets went on sale. In fact, there was such demand that the Kennedy Center computers crashed trying to handle the volume. It’s playing now to a packed and appreciative Opera House audience with more still desperately trying to buy tickets for the sold-out run. This is where I must reveal that I am out of step. I was there on opening night and didn’t like “The Book of Mormon.”

I also don’t like the four-time Emmy Award-winning “South Park” animated television series, which was created by the same people behind “The Book of Mormon.” I don’t like that kind of humor. I’ll accept the criticism from fans of the television show and musical that I’m too stodgy to appreciate this “with-it” style of humor. The Kennedy Center does warn that the musical may not be suitable for children.

“The Book of Mormon” at the Kennedy Center is a polished, well directed production with a talented, energetic cast. There are entertaining and humorous moments. The best one is when the African natives — in an attempt to impress a Mormon dignitary — create an entertainment of a version of The Book of Mormon with “F” words and sexual commentary that is shocking to the Mormon elder. The skit is based on a mixed version of the Mormon holy book that the delightful , playing the wonderfully clumsy underachiever Elder Cunningham, uses to sell his religion to the Ugandan natives. He actually hasn’t read the Book of Mormon. He’s a nerd and uses “Star Wars” and other fantasy references to gain his converts. The natives incorporate this fantasy information in a way that is similar to the children in “The King and I” attempting to tell the Uncle Tom’s Cabin story.

The young Mormons, on the traditional period of missionary proselytizing, are stuck in an impoverished Ugandan village and are desperate to produce a quota of baptisms into the church. Elder Cunningham has been partnered on the mission with Elder Price, , a young, ambitious superstar who is horrified that he has been sent to Uganda instead of France or his dream location, Orlando, Fla. Evans has a great voice and presence and epitomizes the clean-cut all-American Mormon from Salt Lake City, Utah.

It’s easy to poke fun at Mormons because they have so many odd beliefs, but it is probably the only religion that is acceptable to satirize. It would be hard to get away with The Book of “Catholics, Jews, Muslims, or Baptists.” Making fun of Africans, with warlords and real problems, seems a little more tenuous. There is an uncomfortable joking about “f— babies” because they are still young enough to be virgins.

The first song the Ugandans sing is an explanation of what they say when things go wrong. The Mormon missionaries are fascinated with the African words and take to using them until they learn the real meaning. That definition is in the lively song that the Ugandans sing while dancing about the stage, index fingers raised, singing “F— you God.”

One of the more poignant performances comes from as the lovely, innocent Ugandan Nabulungi. She has dreams of going to the heavenly city of Salt Lake and the Baptismal scene she shares with the lovable foul-up Elder Cunningham suggests that more than a church ritual is taking place. Ware is a performer with a presence that we will see and hear more of as her career takes off.

The production moves along rapidly with energetic dancing that seems more athletic than dancing, and the entire production is miked to about as high as it could go without being painful. Unfortunately, some of the lyrics and dialogue is lost in the intense audio. This, however, is not the kind of musical that will have you humming as you leave the theater.

“The Book of Mormon” has its moments, but it doesn’t deserve the hype connected with it.

“The Book of Mormon” continues through August 18 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Limited tickets in the $43-$250 range available. $25 standing room tickets may be purchased the day of the performance (limit 2 per person). Tickets and information 202-467-4600 and available here.

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