‘Book of Mormon’ fulfills mission to make you laugh

FRIDAY, AUG. 15, 2014

Picture a song-and-dance number about a shy young man talking himself into doing the right thing, aided in his imagination by Lt. Uhura from “Star Trek,” the angel Moroni and a band of dancing Hobbits.

Imagine a scene in hell, in which a young devout Mormon is haunted by Lucifer, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler and … OJ Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran. And dancing cups of coffee.

Both these scenes spring from “The Book of Mormon,” the Tony-award winning Broadway smash from “South Park” masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and “Avenue Q” songwriter Robert Lopez, now playing at the INB Performing Arts Center.

Is it sacrilegious? Yes. Profane? Profoundly. Hilarious? Hell, yes.

Despite the blitzkrieg of f-bombs, plenty of sex and shocking subject matter, “The Book of Mormon” is at its heart a sweet story in the old school vein, a musical with a winning score, enthusiastic acting and a lot of heart. It’s hugely entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and is presented with skill by an able cast in the show’s second U.S. tour.

The plot focuses on Elder Price (David Larsen), an eager and ambitious young missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who dreams of being sent to his favorite place on Earth – Orlando, Florida – to do God’s work. Instead, he and his nerdy mission companion, Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), are sent to Uganda, where they come upon a group of impoverished villagers riddled with AIDS, terrorized by a warlord hellbent on forcing all women to be circumcised, and deeply angry at God.

Price and Cunningham – who has a loose relationship with the truth – meet their fellow missionaries, headed by Elder McKinley (Pierce Cassedy), and they are a sorry lot. They’ve not managed to bring one person into the church.

A young local girl, Nabulungi (Denée Benton), sees the chance for escape to paradise – “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (Salt Lake City) – after hearing Price give his pitch (“All American Prophet”). She wants to hear more, and has gathered friends to join her. But by then, Price has fled the village, desperate to find a place more open to his message.

That leaves Cunningham to spread the gospel. That he’s spent more time reading “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy than he has the actual Book of Mormon, causes more than its share of comedic mayhem.

The performances from the cast are spot on. As Price, Larsen perfectly captures a sense of desperate optimism, and a supreme confidence in his own abilities. That he can flash a toothy, blindingly white grin is a big plus. His voice is strong, and “I Believe” is a standout number.

Cunningham is a kid who spends too much time in his own fantasy land, a born follower unsure what to do when thrust into a leadership position. Jamison Strand really makes us feel Cunningham’s desperation, and seems as surprised as the rest of us at the fanciful lies that come out of his mouth.

One running gag is that Cunningham either can’t remember or can’t pronounce (maybe both) Nabulungi’s name. Instead, she’s Neosporin. Neutrogena. Naomi Campbell. By any name, Denée Benton is a treat in this “Book of Mormon.” Her expressive face and beautiful voice evoke an innocence and naïveté unexpected in a place as hard as her Ugandan home. She’s a delight.

Also fun to watch is Cassedy as Elder McKinley, the closeted gay man who leads the missionaries through the chorus line number “Turn It Off.” He also has a fabulously expressive face and he uses it to full advantage. He’s fun to watch.

“The Book of Mormon,” which debuted on Broadway in 2011, won nine Tonys – including for best musical, book, score, featured actress and direction. This is satire not painted with a fine brush, but with a roller. The resulting canvas is a brightly colored pastiche of classic theater mixed with 21st century mores. It’s bright and colorful, cheerful and optimistic, despite some dark subject matter. “The Book of Mormon” is one of the most fun evenings of theater I’ve had in a long time.

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