The Book of Mormon at Heinz Hall through April 21 | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Book of Mormon at Heinz Hall through April 21

click to enlarge THE BOOK OF MORMON
The Book of Mormon
The line for The Book of Mormon at Heinz Hall stretched two or three blocks around the building. Though the show premiered in 2011, people are obviously still clamoring to see it. I went in knowing nothing about the musical or the plot, other than it’s about Mormons and is written by the South Park guys (which I also haven’t seen). It's well-acted, well-sung, and very much from 2011.

The Book of Mormon is a satirical exploration of the teachings of the Mormon Church and its missionaries. The musical focuses on Elder Price, a clean-cut, obedient young Mormon eager to learn the location of his missionary assignment, which he hopes will be Orlando. To his annoyance, his missionary partner is Elder Cunningham, a stumpy and eager guy who’s ready to be his best friend already. But Elder Price’s dreams are crushed when they get sent to Uganda which is in Africa, which is where Lion King takes places (this comes up many times).

Once they get to the Ugandan village, their home for the next two years, the pair are shocked at what they see: their luggage is immediately stolen, the village is full of AIDS and scorpions, and most devastating, no one seems interested in hearing about the church. Elder Price gets so fed up he says he’s going home, leaving Elder Cunningham to spread the teachings on his own. Much to his own surprise, he engages the villagers by reading them a wildly embellished version of the real Book of Mormon, featuring Ewoks, diarrhea, and frogs. One young villager, Nabulungi, is particularly taken with both the religion and Elder Cunningham, thinking he will lead her to the paradise of Salt Lake City. All of this is happening while a violent general is threatening genital mutilation on all the women in the village.

The musical has an impressive scale, with elaborate costumes and sets. The number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is particularly impressive, with an ensemble dancing in devil onesies, sparkly pitchforks (I want one), dancing Starbucks cups, a towering devil, and other hellish things. “Turn it Off” is also a solid number, satirizing the Mormon practice of repressing all complicated feelings, like being gay or missing your dead sister.

Maybe it felt different when the musical premiered in 2011, but much of the satirizing doesn’t feel as subversive as it’s supposed to. The creators went through great care to make accurate details about Mormons but didn’t do the same for the Ugandan characters. The biggest laughs in the audience came from the play’s purposeful racism, like the running joke of Elder Cunnigham not knowing how to pronounce Nabulungi, or the white Missionaries singing “I Am Africa” with their fists in the air. There are many jokes about AIDS (do not cure it by fucking a baby, they sing, do it by fucking a frog!) and female genital mutilation (comedy!). The laughs sometimes feel eerie, like the (mostly white) audience is laughing at the jokes, but also at the fact that they themselves, at least, are not such blatant racists, and isn’t it funny that some people are? Even the fact that the play targets the Mormon Church feels like a way of singling out one especially weird form of Christianity, even though the practices of say, the Catholic Church, are no less shocking.

The acting and singing are good, and the jokes are what they are. If you already like Book of Mormon, you’ll probably like this production. Just make sure you get to the theater a half hour early.

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