How does one start a review of “The Book of Mormon” without mentioning the poop jokes, the profanity, the serrated satires of religion and old-style Broadway production numbers?
You don’t. And from their hoots, the theatergoers Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis didn’t need any more than that.
Yet, forgive me for acting all philosophical and suggesting that scatalogical humor alone cannot account for the enduring popularity of “Mormon,” once described in the pre-“Hamilton” era as the century’s best musical. There is genius in these manure piles and tender heart in its scalding sarcasm. The boys (Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez) have something serious to say about both the power of myth and its hollow chambers, the need for compassion and a religion based on works rather than mere beliefs.
Audiences are free to name their favorite moments — the opening “Hello” song, the “Scary Mormon Hell” sequence, or the “African Moses” divertissement. For me, Elder Cunningham’s evocation of Jesus’ darkest moment and his determination to rise and face the oppressors captures what’s great about this show. It’s funny, raggedly profane and yet it conveys an orthodox truth about the essence of the Nazarene. You stand for what is right.
For the uninitiated, “Mormon” is the story of two missionaries who learn they have been assigned to Uganda. (Maybe the ancient Holy Father misheard Elder Price’s prayer that he get Orlando?) Price (Ryan Bondy) is a model representative of America’s only homegrown religion. He is paired with Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), a lumpy nerd who hasn’t even read the “Book” and who finds life’s profundities in the eternal dialectic of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”
In Uganda, the missionaries find a village beset with AIDS and a vile warlord who wants to genitally mutilate the women. Yikes, tough room.
The fresh-faced elders bunk with other missionaries who have managed zero converts. It is only when Elder Cunningham mixes the Mormon message with pop culture that he stops the cycle of violence.
Strand, who has been playing Cunningham for some time on the road, knows exactly where the funnybone is. His voice is a musical instrument — not a trumpet but a synthesizer that can find a dozen sounds. He’s also enough of an underdog that he can comfort the native Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels) with an understanding of what it means to be despised. Quarrels, in turn, is a winning performer. Bondy’s Price is a different sort of nerd — the overachiever masking insecurity. Daxton Bloomquist as Elder McKinley, who has learned the fine art of self-repression, and Sterling Jarvis as one of the villagers also make themselves known.
There is something perfect about “Mormon” as a metaphor of 21st-century religion. It gives space to the doubter, it makes us laugh at ourselves and it nudges us to care for each other. That’s kind of the whole deal.