Thursday, June 19, 2014

'The Book of Mormon' explores low comedy in high religious places

The clash of cultures worldwide has a sorrowful history. "The Book of Mormon," the multiple Tony Award-winner now at the Murat Theatre, Old National Centre, thumbs its nose at all that by poking fun at the pretensions of outreach, particularly when it's guided by intense, self-contained religious doctrine. In this case, neither the weapon (Mormon self-righteousness) nor the target (a superstitious, disease-ridden, warlord-ruled African village) comes off well.

The spiritually renewed Elder Price declares "I Believe" with the puzzled cooperation of the local warlord.
Wednesday's performance by the Broadway in Indianapolis national touring company showcased endlessly fascinating staging, linked to the performers' well-honed vigor in song, dance and dialogue. Amplification was too loud, which not only diminished the fun but also burdened simple understanding of the words; the noise was returned enthusiastically, however, in the capacity audience's responsiveness.

The show's creators mock Mormonism and the blinders it needs to put on as it exercises missionary zeal here and abroad — a two-year rite of passage for its young men. But the larger implications of the often vulgar spoofery indict all attempts to fit religious dogma onto alien cultures. The funniest part of the show for me was "Making Things Up Again," the first song in Act 2, when Elder Cunningham realizes his old habit of prevarication may serve him well with the Ugandan villagers he's trying to convert.

The song runs riot with the fantastic elements that are so much a part of "The Book of Mormon," as Cunningham's hectoring dad shows up, with supernatural support from the martyred Joseph Smith, revelatory founding figures Mormon and Moroni, and others in a vain effort to encourage faithfulness to the original text.

In this song and throughout Wednesday's performance, Christopher John O'Neill displayed masterly comic timing.  His physical bearing, slouchy and dumpling-like but hyperactive, was a perfect fit for the role of the nebbishy Cunningham. A character drawn from the mold beloved in recent Broadway musicals, Cunningham is stamped with "loser" from the start.

But he turns out to direct his flaws toward success through perseverance and loads of heart. From his underdog position, a combination of luck and desperate insight works in his favor. If pop culture and revered revelation have parallels with the congregation's deepest concerns, so much the better.

In contrast, his conceited, conventional partner Price, assigned to him in the church's practice of sending young missionaries off in pairs, is appalled by the district team's poor prospects. Witness to an atrocity that spattered him with blood and still harboring the dream of being sent to Orlando, he breaks down as his shiny personality implodes like a stepped-on Christmas-tree ornament. Mark Evans shone in the role.

On the African side, Alexandra Ncube sang with a nice blend of naivete and resolve as Nabulungi, the young woman who inclines her villagers toward Mormonism out of fear of the local warlord. She was effectively counterpointed by the prudence and what passes for local wisdom of her father, played by Stanley Wayne Mathis. The braggart tyrant, a self-styled General who is eventually co-opted by Elder Cunningham's manic revisionism, was imbued with glaring bravado in Corey Jones' performance.

Ensemble numbers made a strong impression, chiefly "Turn It Off," a paean to Mormon repression led by the veteran missionary McKinley (Grey Henson).  "Hello," the introductory number that sketches out the doorbell-ringing with which a Mormon missionary visit normally begins, was spiffily staged — and cleverly reprised at the end with a transformative new ensemble.

Maybe these are Throwback Thursday thoughts, but I found too much of the show's humor relies on shock value. When a line in a song about Salt Lake City ends in a vulgar rhyming word for the name of Mormonism's home and draws a laugh, you know that a show is in sync with its audience. And of such connections hits are made.

But the cleverness of the production's satirical thrust is undermined by this kind of pandering. Similarly, uptempo songs in musicals like "The Book of Mormon" seem to derive all their energy from rock, and that becomes tiresome hour after hour. There's only so much that well-worn idiom can do for musical theater, and it's mostly all been done before.