The Book of Mormon, an obscenely funny musical comedy, was lacking its perfectly ironic sparkle on Friday, November 20th at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez, it was first performed in 2011, and went on to win nine Tony Awards and a Grammy Award. This performance in Providence is Book of Mormon's second national tour, directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker. The play is usually a hit, at the very least due to its value in its shock-factor humor, however this production had a few small issues that detracted from the brilliance of the musical.
The technical aspects of the play were brilliant, and displayed the dramatic contrast between Mormon culture and the culture of this tiny village in Uganda. Unfortunately, a couple of the lead actors were not well cast, and they distracted from the overall effect of the show. However, this placed a greater emphasis on the supporting cast members, and it shifted one of the messages to be more pronounced than it would have been in the written script, which shows an interesting interpretation of the musical.
The story focuses on two men of the Church of Latter Day Saints who, as they come of age, follow the tradition of their church and go on a two-year mission to spread their faith. The show opens with a group of men practicing for their missions, in the song "Hello." The show starts of with a visual and auditory bang, as the audience is eased into the combination of the musical's rude comedy, the beautifully crafted songs, and the dramatic visual design that we continue to see throughout the play.
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Elder Price, the squeaky clean, all American boy next door, played by David Larsen, desperately hopes for his mission to go to his favorite place in the world: Orlando, Florida, and reveals this dream in the song "Two by Two." He feels that, because he has done everything in his life by the book, he deserves to be sent where ever he would like to go. In the beginning of the play, however, our "hero" is thrown for a loop, as he is sent to a desolate Ugandan village with the oddball Elder Cunningham as his mission partner.
Normally, in comedies, we see our hero or main character rise above the challenge and emerge successful, however in the first few scenes, we see Elder Price childishly struggle with not getting what he feels he deserves, which can be seen in the song "You and Me (But Mostly Me)." David Larsen fully embodies this blonde haired, blue eyed hero, and equally emphasizes his struggles. Seeing these negative qualities emphasized so strongly, along with the disappointing vocal skills of Larsen, makes it awkward for Elder Price to lead the show, at least through the first act.
The character, Elder Price, is written to have this great character arch; he starts the show as a confident, well liked protagonist, and slowly appears to the audience to be a spoiled, self-centered narcissist. The beauty of his character, however, is that the audience can relate to some of his immature struggles, albeit uncomfortably, and so, while they dislike him more and more throughout the show, they can never completely hate him. Larsen failed the written part by over-emphasizing Price's negative qualities, and making the audience hate him too soon.
This failure of Larsen's put an interesting emphasis on the other characters. Elder Cunningham's character, for instance, benefitted from the unfortunate performance of Larsen. In the show, Elder Cunningham is introduced to us as an over-eager, habitually lying, and determined to make friends. He is so earnest in his endeavors to the point where he lets Elder Price, and his narcissistic attitude, take advantage of him. In the written play, we slowly begin to empathize and root for Elder Cunningham's character more and more as the play goes on— ironically, this coincides with how much we dislike Elder Price.
When Larsen's character began to lose our interest at the beginning of the play, Strand took on the leading character role. This happened sooner than it would have in the written play, and left us with a few uncomfortable scenes where the audience did not have someone to fill the role of the protagonist, as the audience did not yet trust or empathize with Elder Cunningham enough to fill this role.
This was not helped by Strand's voice, which, while great for the character, wasn't as good as I was expecting. When you have these very stereotypical roles, such as the rough-around-the-edges Elder Cunningham, you have to have an actor who can find that balance between the character's voice and proper singing. Too far either way is distracting, either to the quality of the play, as Strand has done, or to the authenticity of the character, by making their voice too pretty. However, Strand's voice was fine, and the issue became less noticeable as the play continued.
The extremely talented supporting actors and actresses ended up playing more prominent roles, due to the miss-timed, out of sync main characters. As Elders Price and Cunningham arrive in Africa, their luggage is stolen, and they are upset when they finally get to the village. There we meet Mafala Hatimbi, the village leader, played by James Vincent Meredith, and his daughter, Nabulungi, played by Candace Quarrels, who, along with the rest of their village, welcome them to Africa with the musical number "Hasa Diga Eebowai."
Visually, the set of the village is striking, it is beautiful in its vibrant colors, yet alarming in its state of decay and extreme poverty. The lighting gives the audience the sense that they are under the hot African sun. The costumes also show a large difference between the privileged WASP culture the Mormons are used to as compared to the desolate poverty and different culture of the Africans. We can see this is the stiff, crisp, black and white of the Elder's outfits as compared to the flowing, colorful, and tarnished qualities to the village's clothing.
The Elders continue to struggle with their transition, as they learn from the other missionaries in the village that the Ugandans have no interest in becoming Mormons, despite the Elders' best efforts. They sing a song, "Turn it Off," in which they coach Price and Cunningham through their shock and disappointment. Elder McKinley, played by Daxton Bloomquist, talks about his gay thoughts, and how he simply has to turn them off, while leading a tap number in a pink-sequined vest.
McKinley's powerful voice and perfect dance routine make a big impression upon the show, further taking the spotlight away from Elders Price and Cunningham. This scene is also very visually driven. The scene begins with the Mormon men introducing themselves, then it grows to the men sharing their hardships, however, when it reaches Elder McKinley's story, they celebrate it by quickly changing into bright pink, sequined vests and breaking out into a tap number. The play succeeds in this aspect, where they allude to something so intensely, such as the fact that Elder McKinley is most likely still gay, and that religion can't make you "turn it off," to the point where the real message is clear.
The play uses this tool in many different scenes in order to make a point without spelling it out to the audience. This way, they can hint at the message, for example, that forcing someone to not be gay doesn't work, and religion is failing many people when it does so, without literally saying it and offending many people. The play employs this tool so that the audience members will see what they want to see, and is a very effective way to cater to a wide audience.
We begin to fall for Elder Cunningham when he sings "I Am Here for You" to Price, comforting him after their traumatic first day. Conversely, the next morning, we see Elder Price lose favor with both the villagers and the audience, as he tries to teach them about the church, but ends up narcissistically comparing himself to religious figures in the song "All American Prophet." Both Larsen and Strand played these scenes well, however, as the play went on it became clear that there was something off in the chemistry between these two actors. The set and costumes once again stun during the song, where they use a scrim to show the imagined scenes from the religious text that Price is reading. The actors depicting the doctrines are in extremely elaborate costumes that, combined with the intense lighting and musical narration, make the stories engaging and even comical.
A war lord comes to the village and demands that all the women be circumcised. When one man protests, he is killed, leaving everyone in shock. This is dramatically emphasized by the lights going dark after we hear the shot and see the man fall to the ground. Nabulungi wishes for a better life in "Sal Tlay Ka Siti." Like Bloomquist, Quarrels performed the song beautifully, and in doing so, she stands out from the two main characters. She imbibes her song with passion and steals the show throughout the rest of the play.
This shifts the focus even further from Elder Price, especially after he decides to abandon the mission and Elder Cunningham. We are now fixated on Nabulungi, when she goes to Elder Cunningham to tell him that the village is ready to learn about the church. Elder Cunningham endearingly sings "Man Up,” where he and some imaginary friends give himself a pep-talk. This number was especially well done, with dramatic lighting that moved very erratically to fit the mood of the song. The choreography and staging were also excellent, with many characters appearing briefly on stage. The whole scene was very dramatic, yet very inspiring and funny.
In the second act we see Elder Cunningham scramble to make up interesting and relatable doctrines by combining the lessons of Mormon faith and his knowledge of science fiction culture. The villagers are all enthralled by his teaching, and want to be baptized. This scene was very well done. Strand, acting opposite the villagers and Nabulungi, is a wonderful actor. He and the villagers work well together to convey the comedy of the differences between the two cultures and their values.
Meanwhile, Elder Price believes he has gone to Orlando, only to find that it is all a nightmare, wherein Hitler, other horrible historical figures, demons, and the devil all torture him. His nightmare is crowned by Jesus calling him a dick for how he treated Elder Cunningham. This scene is one of the most visually striking scenes of the entire play.
The lighting uses very strong colors, and moves quickly to emphasize the many different characters appearing and maniacally dancing around. The set is an incredible feat, quickly moving from Orlando, Florida to hell. The costumes range from terrifying to completely hilarious. The devil is extremely spooky, towering above everyone else in the scene, gigantic in a literal and metaphorical sense, while the giant coffee cups and skeleton people dancing around were fairly ridiculous and comical.
After realizing how horrible he was, he goes back to the village and tries to prove his worth by reasoning with the general who wants to kill the village. This does not end well for him, and we see an x-ray of him, in the next scene, with a copy of The Book of Mormon up his butt. The way they do this scene is really great; it has very little dialogue and is a very short scene, and therefore very easy to miss, however, it is very important. By visually representing the religious text shoved up his butt, the writers are making a statement about religious fanatics in general, and how, to some people, they are too uptight or strict about their religion.
The next scene shows Nabulungi being baptized by Elder Cunningham. The two characters have believable chemistry, which is pretty hard to pull off, and their voices work well together, as we can hear in "Baptize Me." They also successfully use a curtain, which the characters go behind to baptize Nabulungi. This further emphasizes the sexual undertones of this song, as curtains are often used to show the outlines of figures, or to hide their bodies all together, so as to imply what is happening instead of showing it. All of the villagers are later baptized by the missionaries, and they sing "I Am Africa.”
Elder Cunningham goes to find Elder Price, and the two go back to the village to greet the Mormon leaders who have come to congratulate them on their accomplishments. The villagers present the leaders with a play of the Book of Mormon, to the song "Joseph Smith American Moses." It is not received well, as it is filled with the stories Elder Cunningham invented, many of which are very offensive to the church leaders. The play, along with the "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," is one of the most visually striking moments of the play.
The costumes used are very colorful and large, and the actors play up the physical comedy. The costumes and props also become very important towards the end of the play, when they become extremely offensive. It works well as another visual emphasis between this African culture and the Mormon's culture, as we can see when we compare the villager's play with Elder Price's imagination of the doctrines in "All American Prophet."
The play ends with the Mormon President telling Nabulungi that she and the villagers will never be real Mormons. Both the Elders and the villagers are all very upset and disappointed, which leads Nabulungi to sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai (Reprise)." However, they eventually see that even though the elders thought they disgraced the church, the real accomplishment was that they conveyed the messages of the Book of Mormon to these people from a vastly different culture, and by doing so, helped them regain hope. This scene was written very well, with the characters stopping to explain the themes and message of the play to Nabulungi, and through her confusion, also addressing the audience's confusion.
Even though the play seems to be winding down, the villagers still have to deal with General Butt Fucking Naked. With the newfound sense of accomplishment in their storytelling skills, they scared away the general by telling him they were undead—and therefore could not be killed and would have god turn the general into a lesbian if he hurt the villagers. At this, the general, played by David Aron Damane, gave an unconvincing and anticlimactic scream as he and his cohorts ran off stage.
The Elders realize that while they can't stay and teach the Book of Mormon, they can continue to help people in Africa by teaching their own version. The play ends with the song "Tomorrow Is a Latter Day" which mirrors the opening scene, with the villagers ringing door bells and asking people to join the church of Arnold Cunningham. Again, it visually serves to emphasize the differences between the Mormon's culture and the villager's culture, as many aspects of the scene are exactly the same as the opening scene, while some things like their costumes and the script are very different to fit the different circumstances.
The whole play was very well done. The only major critique I have is that Elder Price and Elder Cunningham didn't have the right chemistry, and Elder price wasn't that great in the first act. I think he could have played the character slightly more likeable, because the script makes the audience dislike him in a slow, natural way. Larsen's small additions to the annoying and self-centered nature of Elder Price were not a beneficial change, as they left the audience uncomfortable, and without a clear protagonist for a few scenes.
This change would have been fine if the main point of the play was to make fun of the way musicals are structured, but in Book of Mormon there are so many other things going on thematically, that if you try to emphasize one of these themes above the others in a way that diverges from the script, it may not work well. It certainly didn't in this production, although they succeeded in making Elder Price seem worse than he already is. The technical aspects of the musical all worked really well. The stark differences between the Mormons and the villagers were well emphasized by differences in costume, set, and lighting design. The play beautifully emphasizes and makes fun of the two culture's differences, while celebrating and recognizing their similarities, and how they both have benefitted one another-by combining the two and creating the Book of Arnold Cunningham.
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A Review of The Book of Mormon, a Musical by Matt Stone, Robert Lopez, and Trey Parker. (2023, Apr 18). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/a-review-of-the-book-of-mormon-a-musical-by-matt-stone-robert-lopez-and-trey-parker/
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