Friday, May 13, 2016

More Book of Mormon

The popular play visits Minneapolis for a third time

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Context is everything. That is what kept running through my head while watching the Book of Mormon for the first time this week.

Prior to the astonishing success this year of Hamilton, Book of Mormon was known as the most trendy musical out there. It's had more buzz than a beehive and I was so excited to check it out. Scripted by the writers of South Park, Book of Mormon is known for it's equal-opportunity offending and a welcome Adult Swim approach to the musical.

The plot follows a pair of Mormon teenage boys who are sent out on their requisite mission trip. Rather than a "sexy" location like France or Japan, they are sent to Uganda, where their expectations are forced to meet reality. They end up reaching the local population but only by lying about the purpose of their mission and the text of the Book of Mormon. In the process, they discover that strictly adhering to what the church says may not be the best path for the Ugandans or themselves, and strike out on their own.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
This is a talented cast. They are young, enthusiastic and definitely sell the show. Cody Jamison Strand and Ryan Bondy are perfectly set as Elder Cunningham and Elder Price, respectively. They are the yin to each other's yang, bringing the chubby-nerd-sidekick and seemingly-perfect-but-shallow-poster-boy to a full stop. Candace Quarrels has a gorgeous voice as Nabulungi and leads her fellow "Ugandans" through several beautiful tunes. Speaking of the "Ugandans" - they are musically the strongest part of the show but have the fewest solos. I would have loved to see more from them! The brief moment of song at the end of the show after curtain call gave a taste of where they could have gone, and it was glorious.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The sets are also totally far-out. Glittering pink vests, a full on hell-dream scene replete with Hitler and an axe-wielding Satan, shabby huts, and a gleaming Mormon temple edifice, there is something for everyone on set. The choreography is also great, with some excellent tap dancing and high energy toe tapping that will have you grooving in your seat.

Now, back to that whole pesky context thing. Like I said, this was written from the "equal-offender" perspective. And comedy tends to get its biggest guffaws from making fun of people. I get that. Much of this show succeeds in that vein, and that offensiveness is what people tend to love about it so much. And yet...
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
I couldn't help feeling like this show is just lazy, particularly in its representations of Africa. Can you make jokes about gullible non-English speakers, who basically live in the Lion King, or have maggots in their scrotums, and no education? Sure, you can do that. And the mostly white audience loved it. But wouldn't it be funnier if there was a more diverse representation of minorities in the show? Can we have some who are smart, or successful, or don't live in dirty, bug infested houses? Some who have something valuable to teach their "white saviors"? Do they really all need to have AIDS? Because the real Africa contains a huge range of experiences and class and education levels. There was a nuanced array of experiences for each of the Mormon characters - they had needs, problems, successes that were all unique. Could the people of color in the show be drawn with the same nuance, or do they all have to be painted with the wide brush of ignorance?

I know that many people are not looking to think too hard when coming to the big-ticket shows. They want to sit back and enjoy the play and laugh. But I've seen a lot of South Park, and I know that Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone are capable of some brilliantly complex humor. They are so smart, and they can just do better.

Context is everything. If you are a person of color, you may struggle watching this show - we saw several people walk out, and my date (who was African) had some very conflicting feelings. If you're white, you will probably enjoy it - the vast majority of the audience did.

STILL: This is a really talented cast, and they deserve to be seen. Script issues aren't their problem and they really own the material they're given. It's worth seeing them, and you still can - Book of Mormon runs through May 29. Get more information and tickets here.