That new-time religion

'The Book of Mormon' at PPAC
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 7, 2014

0509_Theater_Book_top.jpg 
MAN ON A MISSION Spreading the good word in 'Mormon.' [Photo by Joan Marcus]

Yes,The Book of Mormon is worth all the fuss it’s prompted: nine Tony Awards, critical adulation just short of religious fervor, and Broadway tickets that have been nearly as unobtainable as Mormon priesthood was for blacks until 1978, when God apparently changed His mind.

Fortunately, the touring musical is passing through the Providence Performing Arts Center (through May 11).

The show doesn’t so much make fun of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints as let the church make fun of itself. After all, how could you beat a religion that claims its founder discovered instructions on buried gold plates that God didn’t want him to show anyone, and that Jesus spend those absent three days in America.

Book, music, and lyrics are by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez. The first two created the brashly irreverent animated comedySouth Park, and Lopez was co-composer and co-lyricist ofAvenue Q, which could be considered an anti-Sesame Street exposé (he also won an Oscar for co-writing the ubiquitous “Let It Go” fromFrozen).

The musical takes a broad swipe at Jesus-centric religion but it isn’t mean about it, presenting Mormonism as naïvely well-intentioned. We learn that prophets make stuff up, sometimes in delusion and sometimes in imaginative generosity. In either case, the result can be a religion that lifts the spirit and tamps down any urge to throttle your neighbor.

The story centers around two missionaries, egocentric Elder Kevin Price (on opening night brightly played by Jonathan Cullen, replacing an ill Mark Evans), who is paired up with an adoring Elder Arnold Cunningham (a charmingly sprightly Christopher John O’Neill), whose puppy dog submissiveness is eventually and effectively replaced by truth-bending ingenuity.

They are sent off after three months of training to save souls, mandatory for male 19-year-old Mormons. Their assignment is Africa, specifically war-torn northern Uganda (Price had hoped for Orlando).

Plunked down in a dilapidated village, they have plenty to shock them: armed thugs steal their bags, and they learn that most of the impoverished and hungry villagers are dying of AIDS. A local warlord who calls himself General Butt-Fucking Naked (Corey Jones), who is obsessed with imposing female circumcision, sure ain’t no meerkat. He’s terrified that all the clitorises around him will “power up.” Later, when one man stands up to him, the warlord shoots him in the face, and Price staggers off traumatized.

Not only is this place “not likeLion King,” as Cunningham remarks, but that musical’s sappy-happy “hakuna matata” slogan is replaced by the village gaily dancing and singing “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which translates as “Fuck you, God!” A healthy coping mechanism, considering the circumstances.

Quite a challenge for the arrogant Price and his fawning follower. Of course, there’s eventually a role reversal, with Price humbled by events and Cunningham rising to the occasion. He does so with what has hitherto been a fault, his penchant for nervous invention in conversation, which proves a blessing in the realm of proselytizing faith. He hasn’t ever gotten around to reading the Book of Mormon, you see.

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