When word came that the producers of “The Book of Mormon” were dissuading reviewers from seeing the road version that has returned to Minneapolis for a four-week run, a question arose about the quality of the production. Do backers of one of Broadway’s hottest tickets lack faith in the tour version? Were they offering a cut-rate “Mormon” for folks they disdainfully viewed as suckers in the sticks?
Or were they so confident about their brand — tickets top out at $154 a pop — that they thought, in the profane spirit of “Mormon,” “screw the critics”?
Apparently, it’s the last sentiment. The just-opened production at the Orpheum Theatre (about Mormon missionaries going to Uganda to convert Africans) has the smiling earnestness, the irresistible zeal and profane heart of the previous tour, from February 2013, and the Broadway version, which is still a triumph three years on.
The big numbers of this musical directed by Trey Parker and choreographer Casey Nicholaw are all still uproariously intact. From the introductory “Hello!” to the lurid “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” from the profane “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which gives the finger to a higher power, to the tap number, “Turn It Off,” the show does not miss.
True, Cody Jamison Strand and David Larsen bring very different flavors to the duo of Elders Cunningham (Strand) and Price (Larsen), the Mutt-and-Jeff pair originated on Broadway by Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, both of whom were relatively unknown but became stars.
Strand’s Elder Cunningham is still a lovable, portly schlub, but he has a deep foghorn in his voice, one he uses an awful lot. His Cunningham is a little more antic and thirsty for laughs than his predecessors, but there’s nothing to complain about. He plays it for the comedy and nails it.
Larsen plays the straight man with appropriate squareness. Denee Benton, who plays Nabulungi, the sweet, healthy African girl who is the bridge between the clean, neat white Americans and the dirty, ragtag, diseased Africans, is gorgeous.
If this “Mormon” is going to make stars, it’ll be Pierce Cassedy, who plays several roles, including mission leader Elder McKinley, a man struggling with homoerotic thoughts. Cassedy has a magnetic, can’t-take-your-eyes off-him presence. He lights up every scene he enters, especially “Turn It Off,” where his butter-smooth tap dancing and bright smile conquer the stage.
The strength of “Mormon” always has been its yoking of opposites, even as it plays up (and genially knocks over) stereotypes. The cultural juxtaposition of seemingly innocent white missionaries vs. the foul-mouthed Africans is ripe with comedy, done earnestly with tongue planted firmly in cheek. In the end, “Mormon” is a show not so much about faith or even cultural misunderstandings as it is about stories. Stories are how we organize ourselves, how to share our lives and journeys.
Religion, “Mormon” shows, gives us stories, however imaginative and fanciful, that help us to make sense of our circumstances. These stories also provide over-the-the-top comic relief.