by Julia Doerr
Let me admit to you that I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I agreed to review “The Book of Mormon,” playing Tuesday, December 11 through Sunday, December 16 at the Lied Center. I had never seen the musical before but had heard it is a satirical look at Mormon missionaries. My ticket warned of explicit language. In spite of that, I expected to love the show.
And I did.
But what to say in the review?
I didn’t know that much of the play is set in a small village in northern Uganda, where the villagers suffer from drought, famine, widespread AIDS, and a bullying warlord who demands the female circumcision, i.e. genital mutilation, of all the women in every village he controls. I never expected I’d hear the word clitoris over and over in a musical, of all things. Or the frequent repetition of the statement, “I have maggots in my scrotum.” Hard to imagine, if you’re an aficionado of musical theater, isn’t it?
I didn’t expect to see an audaciously original and imaginative combination of storyline, musical lyrics, quirky characters, and ideas both hilarious and potentially offensive. The Church of Latter–Day Saints takes some very palpable hits as its “Third Testament” is roundly ridiculed along with the clean-cut “Mormon Army” that travels the world to spread its Word. So my expectations were blasted, and I was delightfully intrigued from the beginning to the end of the show.
In the beginning, there were the young Mormon men training to be missionaries, the two-year service expected of all young Mormon men. The opening number, “Hello,” introduces the audience to these idealists, eagerly anticipating their assignments, in pairs, to faraway places. The wunderkind of sorts, Elder Kevin Price, imagines himself assigned to his “favorite place in the world,” Orlando, Florida. Actor Kevin Clay personifies the charisma of his character perfectly, and his beautiful toothy grin provides the icing on the cake.
By contrast, Elder Arnold Cunningham is the geek of the group, carefully taught by his father to be “a follower” as an encouragement not to be too weird. Elder Cunningham, played artfully by Conner Peirson, is physically awkward, emotionally needy, and behaviorally not quite appropriate. He is given to elaborate flights of fancy, i.e., a lot of lying. Of course—yes of course—Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are paired up and assigned not to Orlando, land of make-believe, but to Uganda, land of hard reality.
In the end, Price and Cunningham, along with virtually every other character they encounter on their mission, have been profoundly changed. Price experiences a spiritual journey that includes a fall from pride and a bit of “the dark night of the soul.” In response, Cunningham finds his voice, powerfully underlined in the show-stopping Act I finale, “Man Up.” Peirson shines in this number, supported by such notables as Darth Vader, Yoda, and Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura in cameo appearances.
I’m not doing justice to the many other members of the cast. There were no weak links. None. But let me specially mention Andy Huntington Jones as Elder McKinley, the group leader of the Uganda missionaries. He initiates Elders Price and Cunningham into their difficult assignment with my favorite musical number, “Turn It Off,” a homage to “that special Mormon trick,” repression of dark personal feelings. Also notable are Kayla Pecchioni as Nabulungi, lead female of the show, a young African woman who would love to experience the American Paradise of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” and Corey Jones as the General, a very scary African warlord, but one who is pretty easily tamed.
The production values of this show are of very high quality. The sets are extremely effective, especially the heavily textured and layered depiction of the Ugandan village. Costuming was flawless, from the extremely bland and conformist uniforms of the missionary men to the outrageous color and style combinations of the African villagers. And don’t even get me started on the over-the-top styles sported by the devil, demons, and skeletons of Elder Price’s vision of hell, seen in another stand-out number, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” Oh, we get a peek at the infamous Mormon undergarment, too.
The cast of singers and dancers was well supported by the able pit orchestra, and the singing and dancing were also impressive. Tap-dancing missionaries: delightful. And ironic.
Irony is really the overwhelming tone throughout “The Book of Mormon.” The ultimate irony is that, in spite of the show’s ridicule of the Mormon faith, in spite of the lack of difference portrayed between the history and theology of Mormonism and the embellishments created by the fictional Elder Cunningham’s rampant imagination, the resolution of this play’s plot points to the positive value of faith.
If you go: the Lied Center is located on the corner of 12th and R Streets in Lincoln, Nebraska. Valet parking is available, as well as street parking and city parking garages within walking distance. Book of Mormon runs December 11th through 16th. There is a warning for graphic language. Tickets are available here.
Julia Doerr is a retired high school English teacher with a lifelong love of plays, both as literature and performance. She assisted, as dramaturg, with the direction of several Shakespeare plays during her tenure at Lincoln High School, where she spent 27 of her 33 years teaching. Julia loves to attend the theater, to write, and to share her opinions. That makes writing reviews her dream assignment.