Just about everybody else in the world also gets the universal joke of the show created by Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Robert Lopez — that it's fun to laugh at the crazy-sounding nature of religious stories while you're also satirizing both American religious imperialism and the entire population of Uganda. And of course, most everyone in the world got first dibs on those laughs, thanks to the headline-grabbing Broadway show that earned nine Tony awards in 2011.
But four years on, the Salt Lake City backdrop, real and metaphorical, adds additional layers of irony to this homage to Broadway musicals that uses crude jokes to make big production numbers seem freshly over-the-top.
The Utah audience reacted knowingly to the door-knocking opener, "Hello!," the repression of "Turn it Off," the Donny Osmond joke in "All-American Prophet" and the dancing Starbucks coffee cups in "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream."
Best of all was the rafter-rattling applause for the mythical descriptions of "Sal Tlay Ka Siti." Beyond the set's exaggerated spires of the Salt Lake Temple, just two blocks away from the theater, you have to love the authenticity of the airport backdrop in a scene where LDS missionaries depart.
It's not a show for anyone who might be offended that the character of Jesus calls a rule-breaking missionary "a dick," or by a missionary who creates his own religion with apocryphal stories about sex with frogs curing AIDS. And despite an upbeat finale that ends the show, all is not well. The last line of dialogue, from a Ugandan character, undercuts all that optimism: "I still have maggots in my scrotum!" is the note on which the show ends.
Tell the Tribune: What did you think about "The Book of Mormon"?
The plot's pretty simple. "Book of Mormon" is a buddy story about a mismatched set of LDS missionaries, Elders Price (Billy Harrigan Tighe), the narcissist who thinks God has called him to do incredible things, and Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), the nerdy follower who has a tendency to lie when he gets nervous. Together, they are assigned to convert Uganda.
In Africa, the elders in District 9 find an angry warlord and an AIDS epidemic, which makes it difficult to share the message of the gospel set forth in The Book of Mormon by the "All-American Prophet," Joseph Smith.
Complications ensue, leading to scene after scene of the "South Park" brand of boy humor. One X-ray of a book of scripture in a very unholy place, for example, made all the male theatergoers around me groan.
Tighe's got solid leading-man talent but the tour direction (by choreographer Casey Nicholaw and Parker) doesn't allow the actor to rise above the character's stereotypes, made so memorable by the role's originator, Andrew Rannells.
Holmes is much more distinctive as Elder Cunningham, helped by his slim frame and nerdy gestures, which set his portrayal apart from the plumpness of Josh Gad's comic genius.
Holmes is particularly winning as he pairs in a beautifully awkward way with Nabulungi, his first convert, played with effortless charisma by Alexandra Ncube. He's charming in leading "Man Up," and paired with Ncube in the awkward strip-tease of "Baptize Me," such an uncomfortably sweet duet of religious and erotic stirrings.
The missionary chorus, of course, is filled with talent. The ensemble earned plenty of laughs from an audience that you might guess included plenty of returned missionaries, yet the characters never broke out of their collective Pee-wee Herman-ish caricature.
The script's slight missteps, where Mormon characters say things like "Praise Christ," landed with a dull throb. While I think "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" has always been a tone-deaf number, more successful at portraying generic religious guilt then the particular Mormon kind, the song wasn't helped when its lyrics were garbled and swallowed by the sound mix.
And the character of Jesus Christ, already a step across the boundaries of religious respect, simply didn't need such an exaggerated accent to be funny.