By KILY WONG ’16
On April 3, the Office of Student Involvement sold discount tickets to the national touring production “The Book of Mormon,” which has won nine Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical. Written in collaboration with Tony Award winner Robert Lopez who wrote Avenue Q, and co-directed by four-time Emmy Award winners and creators of South Park Trey Parker and Matt Stone, this hilarious Broadway religious satire follows the story of two young Mormon missionaries who get sent from their golden halls of Latter Day Saints Church Missionary Training Center in Utah all the way to Uganda.
A musical comes with an advisory stating that it contains explicit language and dark comedy, “The Book of Mormon” is reminiscent of Monty Python’s “Spamalot.” In addition, the play also contains multiple allusions to existing works such “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “King and I”, “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Trek,” as well as other pop culture references. While Act I fell a little short in terms of storyline and relatively simplistic set designs, the choreography of the dance numbers made up for it. One of the great highlights included tap-dancing along with a complete blackout and quick on-stage costume changes.
Some of my personal favorite songs from the musical include “You and Me, But Mostly Me,” “I Believe,” “Turn it Off” and “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (which, to my horror, actually translates to “Fuck You, God”). While the musical clearly commits itself to “Mormon bashing” at times, it illustrates the power of stories and portrays religion in a positive light. In addition to exploring topics such as friendship, the inability of religion to end the suffering of all people and the concept of emotional repression, the play also addresses issues of race, AIDS, genital mutilation and the notion of the “white man’s burden.” Through humor, the musical attempts to detoxify certain socially untouchable topics and encourages people to start discussions about some of these uncomfortable issues.
But with the lead characters, Elder Kevin Price (Mark Evans), a witty, egotistic and self-centered man who believes he is destined for greatness, and Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), an insecure man and compulsive liar, guiding both non-believers and believers in the audience through Uganda — it is difficult to lose one’s way. Even as the play might seem to provide the complete history of Mormonism, including the church founders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Jesus and the angel Moroni, be sure to ask for a second opinion upon leaving the theater. After all, one can never be sure whether “The Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is truly rooted in fact.
Meanwhile, the leading female role, Nabulungi (Syesha Mercado), who is also the village leader’s daughter, rises to become the voice of the people. Despite the fact that Elder Cunningham repeatedly gets her name wrong and even calls her “Neutrogena” at one point, they begin to fall in love as they perform “Baptize Me,” an innuendo-laden duet. Together, they eventually find the strength to lead the villagers beyond the struggle of daily life, and they confront the warlord (whose name is not suitable to be printed).
Whether “The Book of Mormon” is in fact worthy of its success due to its potentially disrespectful, distasteful and offensive nature remains controversial. But the heart of the play addresses things that are closer to the truth than we want to believe. Thus, the musical’s seemingly excessive caustic moments when the comic relief may appear misplaced and the fact that no topic is sacred or off limits help reveal a spiritual and emotional awakening for its viewers.
Syesha Mercado is on Broadway and has never even been in the first national tour. Alexandra Ncube is currently Nabulungi in Boston.