I could listen to Utah theatergoers responding to Myha’la Herrold’s rendition of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” all night long.
In “The Book of Mormon” musical, Herrold’s character, Nabulungi, offers a beautiful parody of a classic Disney princess’s “I want” song. Her rendition is rich and heartfelt, singing of place filled with waterfalls and unicorns where the goat meat is plentiful and the warlords are friendly. She bets the “people are open-minded, and don’t care who you’ve been.”
Sure, she’s a girl, and only the talk of girls’ body parts gets much attention in Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez’s raunchy musical. Girl characters? Not so much. But the song represents the pleasure — and maybe the pain — of watching the second run of “Book of Mormon” here in Salt Lake City.
We get all the jokes, starting with the loud applause for the rotating gilded Angel Moroni statue spotlighted before the show begins. We get all the irreverent jabs, too, which feel as painful in spots as a rectal blockage.
Of course, this isn’t a show for Mormons or other theatergoers who can’t appreciate the equal opportunity of its offensiveness, which only begins by making fun of religious faith. Somehow, laughing at the show’s adolescent boy “South Park” humor feels harsher in 2017, after an election that inspired millions of women to don pink pussy hats for protest marches across the country.
Yet on media night, Utah theatergoers enthusiastically responded to the musicals ’wicked joys, which plays through Aug. 20. (See details for the lottery ticket drawings before each show.)
The story rests on the shoulders of its boy buddy leads, Gabe Gibbs’ Elder Price and Conner Peirson’s Elder Cunningham, mismatched missionary companions who display imitative charm but winning chemistry.
As Elder Price, Gibbs’ talent (he's a veteran of the tour and Broadway casts) lurks behind a sunny smile that’s remarkably oversized, even in a roadhouse-size theater. His actorly personality doesn’t naturally convey the character’s narcissism, but he offers rich texture in the second act’s self-realization scenes. As Elder Cunningham, Peirson has a leading man’s voice tucked inside a comedian’s awkwardness.
As I watched the second Salt Lake City run of “Book of Mormon,” I kept thinking about casting directors coping with a challenge that must be well-known to mission presidents for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As soon as your talent is well-seasoned, it’s time to move on.
Young talent makes up the ensemble of naive missionaries onstage at the Eccles Theater, with many of the actors announcing their first national touring gig in their Playbill bios. That includes Utah man Jaron Barney, who as Elder Smith reveals himself to understand the show’s required earnest smiles. Barney, a Syracuse native and University of Utah grad, is thought to be the first “Saturday’s Voyeur”-seasoned stage missionary to make it to the “BOM” national tour. So far, that is.
Both ensembles, the Mormons and the Ugandans, are ridiculously talented in selling their bigoted stereotypes.
Watching the tap-dancing joy of the missionaries in “Turn It Off,” you can appreciate the nifty storytelling trick of selling cheesiness while satirizing it. (How can you not snort with laughter over those flamingo-pink sequin vests?) PJ Adzima plays the closeted gay missionary, Elder McKinley, with abandon, even asking if he had appeared in Elder Price’s spooky Mormon hell dream.
Watching the folk-art spectacle of the Ugandans’ rendition of “Joseph Smith American Moses,” I just kept thinking that these actors appear all in. Sterling Jarvis, as Mafala, is particularly fine.
When you’re no longer a “Book of Mormon” virgin, it’s easy to pay more attention to the musical‘s layers of theatrical wit. Beyond the Disney-fied Salt Lake skyline, Scott Pask’s Tony Award-winning scenic designs are richly infused with Mormon celestial iconography. On a repeat viewing, co-director Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is eye-dazzling in its stylization. Making rich stage pictures out of what he calls “cheesy theme park” movement is another kind of nifty trick, as are the score’s numerous valentines to the musical theater canon.
My husband wonders if there’s enough “Book of Mormon” love in Salt Lake City to make the musical the kind of perpetual draw that “Les Misérables” is throughout Utah. It’s hard to say how long the show will continue to sell.
Theater artists know how hard it is to play a hometown show, where the laughs keep rolling, jamming up the next line or song. Yet for audiences, the bottom line is this: How often do you get to appreciate an absurd retelling of your town’s founding myth as a Cook of Mormon food truck sells Utah scones outside the new Main Street theater?
‘I Believe’ in ‘Sal Tlay Ka Siti’<br>Bottom line • Talented, imitative cast delivers the raunchy, irreverent humor and hometown pleasures in Tony Award-winning “Book of Mormon.” .<br>When • Reviewed Wednesday; plays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m.Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, through Aug.20<br>Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City<br>Tickets • $35-$180 (plus ticket fees of $12-$13 per tickets), with best availability toward the end of the run; artsaltlake.org or 801-355-2787 <br>Running time • 2 hours 30 minutes, with 15-minute intermission<br>Lottery • Sign up at the theater box office for a ticket lottery 2 ½ hours before a performance; only one entry per person.<br>Also • Captioned performance at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12 (select seats in Orchestra Right on the main floor)<br>Tickets • $35-$180 (plus ticket fees of $12-$13 per tickets), with best availability toward the end of the run; artsaltlake.org or 801-355-2787