THE BOOK OF MORMON (First National Tour Company): Sincerely funny

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Strong performances by lead players David Larsen and Cody Jamison Strand make his touring production of MORMON he best and most thoroughly successful among the three stagings I’ve seen.

Sincerity is the key. Larsen goes beyond the page and great jokes that fill it as Elder Price, the star pupil of his missionary class and burdened bearer of all of the expectations that go with valedictory. Larsen is authentic, and believable; he remains boyish and retains the callow lack of sophistication that makes him envision Disney’s Orlando as the ideal place of Earth. He conveys the seriousness of a committed youth who has followed the rules, excelled at impressing people, and has determination to ace anything he attempts. He also conveys the shallowness of being the best because of needing to please rather than because of innate talent, judgment, intellect, cunning, mastery of subject, or excellence. Best of all, Larsen’s Elder seems natural as he faces adversity and eventually becomes credibly enlightened by his ordeal as the Church of Latter Day Saints’s emissary in near-primitive Uganda.

Larsen creates a complete and human character. He moves THE BOOK OF MORMON  out of cartoon status and makes what South Park gagsters Matt Stone and Trey Parker are saying and lampooning more poignant and more palpably satirical.

Likewise, Cody Jamison Strand seems to be doing more than a comic turn as the incompetent, mendacious clown among the young missionaries, Elder Cunningham. While using size, in terms of both personal girth and comic broadness, in playing Cunningham, Strand also shows the desperation and sanity-saving imagination that drives the hapless 19-year-old to lie and make up preposterous stories. Strand plays the loser who wants to fit and be loved in spite of his faults.

Larsen and Strand lead an excellent cast that follows their example in extracting all the comedy and heart from this naughty, funny musical. Candace Quarrels matches the starring pair in authenticity as Nabulungi, a young villager whose fathers keeps her safe from both AIDS-ridden suitors and rabid circumcisers. Daxton Bloomquist is wonderful as Elder McKinley, who welcomes Price and Cunningham to the Ugandan ministry and teaches them dandy techniques in the clever Parker-Stone-Robert Lopez song, “Turn It Off” and who exaggeratedly celebrates Cunningham’s success at conversions by leading the ensemble in “I Am Africa.” Others who keep this touring production on a keel superior to previously seen “Mormons” are James Vincent Meredith, as Nabulungi’s wise father and Price and Cunningham’s liaison to the village; David Aron Damane as the rebel general who gives Elder Price a special thrill; Melvin Brandon Logan as a doctor sorely plagued with an affliction of his own; and Edward Watts as a series of uptight, no-nonsense adults.

While the parodic, satirical properties of MORMON cannot be denied, and while its comedy is in a class that goes neatly and entertainingly over the top, the show struck me on previous occasions as a one-joke wonder. It never seemed to go far enough in ridiculing Mormonism or religion. It relies on a zany premise and uses some easy-to-caricature groups, clean-cut Mormons and near-primitive Africans, to create some larky comedy. I always wanted Parker and Stone to go deeper, to be really mean, and to tear at the roots of proselytizing, philosophy peddling, and the literary world’s image of the third world villager, not to mention bloodthirsty rebels, but I contented myself in enjoying the jaundiced humor, wacky plot twists, and genuine laughs Parker and Stone were willing to offer.

This touring production doesn’t make THE BOOK OF MORMON  any more savage in terms of go-for-the-throat commentary, but it knits Parker and Stone’s comic ideas together and tells a more moving story that becomes funnier, more biting, and more satisfying because it seems to have a human core. My favorite scene is past productions was the one in which Price returns from the rebel camp to the village he is assigned to convert in a state of medical distress, the rebel general having shoved a thick, sharply bound copy of the Book of Mormon in his anal cavity.

This time, it was the interaction of Price or Cunningham with various other characters that involved me. I was more impressed and entertained with the song, “I Believe” Price sings before and while confronting the general that I was with the uncomfortable, if hilarious, aftermath. I enjoyed Elder Cunningham’s exuberant, and unintentional, conning of the villagers by adding element of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” in his commentary. Strand’s approach to his proselytizing ties back well to the line when he admits he has never read all the way through The Book of Mormon because he finds the story too boring.

By finding the characters more fascinating, and taking a closer interest in them, all of the elements of THE BOOK OF MORMON become richer. It’s still a bit overhyped as an incisive commentary and still as much gag-laden as it is shrewdly commentating, but, in the current production at the Forrest, the story seems fuller and more linked to the people who are living it. Read more on Neals Paper >>>

[Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street] November 24-December 27, 2015; kimmelcenter.org.

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Neal Zoren for NealsPaper

Neal of the Nealspaper is a fan of all forms of live entertainment, movies, and television. He is also a constant reader and a frequent traveler. He writes for NealsPaper.com, a place for people to come to read one authoritative voice in the dialogue, and find out what might be worthwhile — or not — as you plan your entertainment outings.