Well, bless my heart. That famously loaded sentiment is what I deserve to hear for arriving at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center with preconceived notions about Best of Broadway’s touring production of The Book of Mormon. Don’t get me wrong: I knew the much-acclaimed Broadway hit was a bona fide, F-bomb-dropping crowd-pleaser — so much so that its booked-solid buzz suppressed any effort to see it when I lived in New York.
But, since I resist knowing too much about a new work before landing in a seat, my humming-over-plugged-ears allowed in only the loudest facts on the show. Yes, it’s uncommonly raunchy, lousy with profanity, and inarguably impious. Just knowing that the work joins South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone with Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez is enough to set the stage for questionable taste quotients. And while those properties don’t particularly bother me, they rarely entice.
However, there is far more to the zany, unceremonious story of two Mormons on a mission to spread the good word in Uganda than offends more delicate sensibilities. And, yes, there is plenty to put off, including making light of some heinous so-called local customs and glibly referencing the continent’s raging AIDS epidemic for comic intent.
But The Book of Mormon leverages its mega-charge and cheek to thrust you into a wild and wacky world. It is a world that never ceases to top itself in hilarity – and, more surprisingly, in heart. Long after you acclimate to the show’s audacity, you still roar at its punch lines and root for its players. Somehow this altogether impudently ingenious work has transcended its potty mouth and outsize provocations to deliver that most elusive of musical holy grails: the ability to make its audiences both cheer and care.
From “Hello!” — its first delirious door-to-door number of marching Mormons primed to ring bells and proffer their books — to “Turn it Off,” the pitch-perfect, razor-sharp tune about repression, The Book of Mormon demonstrates how ideal the musical genre is in delivering the timing and goof-factor that heighten humor. At the same time, the show deftly ricochets from comedy to compassion in songs like “I Believe,” (delivered with strident, smiley spark by Gabe Gibbs in the role of Elder Price). Likewise, in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” when Ugandan ingénue Nabulungi (the magnetic Kim Exum) pines for a better life in Salt Lake City, the song seamlessly mashes up the silly and the sublime.
With the pipes and chops of these two performers, along with cast members including Connor Peirson as Elder Price’s brilliantly bumbling cohort Elder Cunningham, there goes my admittedly outdated notion of touring companies as way stations for the overworked and the under cast, the last bastion of washed-up television actors. This bias was likely stoked by the prime real estate I once enjoyed working in marquee-dazzled Times Square, where Broadway’s bounty was often a simple stroll to the TKTS booth. My bad. Times have changed.
Even the real-life Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints has literally gotten with the program. I spotted their ad in the playbill, with the sporting headline, “Our version is sliiiightly different.” So when it comes to top-notch touring productions that deliver the message of genre-invigorating musical comedies, I have snapped out of it, too.
On that note: As we exited the coliseum, a somewhat shy, shorn-blond Mormon greeted the crowds, distributing copies of that famous black book to a blissed out stream of theater patrons spanning ages and styles. The serious young man was received with much affection, perhaps more so than if he had appeared on their doorsteps. That being said, we should count ourselves among the blessed that The Book of Mormon appeared on ours.
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