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OPINION: ‘Book of Mormon’ sinfully entertaining

April 4, 2013
By SARAH REED - Theater critic for Weekender , The Herald-Star

PITTSBURGH - "The Book of Mormon" proves a sinfully entertaining theatrical experience.

The production is currently running at the Benedum Center through Sunday

Keeping a watchful eye from his position atop the peak of a lovely white temple with numerous striking multicolored stained glass windows, the angel Maroni stands ever-presently firm while a group of eager young Mormon men gather in a mission training center to receive their missionary assignments.

As each one is given his partner and station, 19-year-old Kevin Price awaits most anxiously of all to learn where he will be sent to carry out his awesome purpose. Hoping against hope, the zealous Price wishes that he will be asked to evangelize in his most favorite city of all Orlando, Fla., where Disney World and Sea World undoubtedly need his pastoral presence. An unimaginable blow befalls the serious Price as he learns that he will not be preaching to the likes of Mickey and Minnie Mouse but to the people of a small village in Uganda. And to make matters worse, his mission companion, a comparatively easy-going, undeniably quirky, and yet very willing youthful Mormon named Arnold Cunningham will be tagging along beside - or more likely behind - him. Hoping that Africa may be as it is portrayed in the beloved Disney story "The Lion King," the two young elders set off. When they reach the impoverished, godless Ugandan village entrusted to their care, hostility and lifestyles unconceivable to their innocent understandings accost them. It also becomes immediately obvious that their journey will not be like anything represented in "The Lion King."

With a purely unabashed youthful energy completely encompassing the uninhibited nature of the American spirit and with a perfectly disguised accent to match, English actor Mark Evans' Elder Price combines an enjoyable balance of serious ambitiousness while also displaying an endearing amount of zany humor. Evans' rendition of "You and Me (But Mostly Me)," in which he explains to Elder Cunningham that he will be in charge of making the biggest impact on the Ugandan villagers, is performed with a wonderful sense of overdone self-righteousness, while his delivery of a solemn scene in which Elder Price imbibes large doses of coffee and sincerely reconsiders his desire to serve the Ugandan people after witnessing the village terrorist shoot another townsman in the face brings a very pleasing sense of depth to his portrayal.

Lending an adorable submissiveness and an outrageously humorous personality to his portrayal of Elder Cunningham, Christopher John O'Neill manages to rightfully hoard the majority of the production's tender and comedic moments. A great deal of O'Neill's most notable comedic steals occur as Elder Cunningham attempts to advise his Ugandan disciples in the teachings of the Book of Mormon, which he has never bothered to read. As someone who must equate life's experiences to movies, such as "Star Wars" and "The Lord of the Rings," he incorporates various aspects of these stories, and others, into his lessons on the holy book while also bending its history to be more relatable to the Ugandan culture, which happily entices the callous small town to desire more knowledge of Mormonism.

From this moment a rapturously amusing musical number "Making Things Up Again" ensues, in which everyone from Cunningham's parents to the sagely Yoda appears in a musical sequence to chastise the desperate elder, who is liable to fabricating tales to compensate for his lack of friends, for putting his own spin on the Book of Mormon. O'Neill also shines as a romance forms between his Cunningham and Samantha Marie Ware's tenderly innocent Nabulungi, a young female resident of the African village. Much hilarity builds as O'Neill's Cunningham constantly fails to remember Nabulungi's real name, referring to her, among many names, as Nala and Neutrogena, and while singing their slyly naughty duet "Baptize Me."

A satisfying sobriety conversely overtakes his character as he confronts the heart-broken Nabulungi, telling her he cannot take her with him to Salt Lake City, Utah, a place she is convinced would be the only refuge from her current treacherous existence.

Alone, Samantha Marie Ware displays a beautifully powerful vocal agility in her solo number "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," in which her very childlike Nabulungi dreams of the safety that Salt Lake City could afford. Ware also elicits some laughs as Nabulungi sweetly and enthusiastically sets out to "text" her fellow villagers with her old-fashioned typewriter, which she believes to be the latest in technological communication.

As prevalent as the impending danger that threatens the plot's African community is the production's explicit use of very vulgar verbal and body languages and indelicate handlings of such topics as the female anatomy and religious figures. This component of the musical is oftentimes extremely startling but is also something to be expected from the piece's composers and lyricists Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who are responsible for the creation of the adult animated cartoon "South Park," and from its third composer-lyricist Robert Lopez, who co-wrote the risque stage musical "Avenue Q."

The presence of these flagrant obscenities, although they may make you feel extremely repentant of your decision to attend the production, does not overshadow the musical's overt creativity within its extravagantly choreographed dance routines and fascinating set design, thoroughly engaging plotline and most importantly, its very realistic character conflicts and portrayals.

It is most important to use discretion when deciding whether to attend a performance of "The Book of Mormon," however its amount of flamboyant and irreverent humor holds great potential to entertain "South Park" fans, while for fans of musical theater it should prove a worthy experience.

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