Packed with big laughs, a remarkably solid stack of songs, smart choreography, infectous high spirits and, yes, outrageous moments, "The Book of Mormon" has arrived in Indy in strong shape. (It plays through June 22 at the Murat).
The Tony-winning Best Musical tells the story of a pair of missionaries assigned to spread the word about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to a village in Uganda.
Strangers-in-a-strange-land plots are nothing new in musicals. But “The King and I” this isn’t. Images of a “Lion King”-like Africa give way quickly to harsh realities. The optimistic young men find themselves surrounded by AIDS-ridden locals, a vicious warlord and, in a great visual gag to underline their transition, a zebra corpse hauled across the stage.
What happens next—including the would-be AIDS cure, the translation of the catchy “Hakuna Matata”-like ditty the villagers sing, and the place where a “Book of Mormon” gets uncomfortably lodged—is best left to your own discovery when you see the show.
But as I wrote when I first saw the show in its Chicago mounting, as much as it takes glee in shocking, this is not a one-note show. I didn’t feel pummeled by single-mindedness the way I often do at shock comedies or shock action films at the movies. It’s obvious from the first notes that “The Book of Mormon” was crafted by people who love musical theater.
They understand that, given characters we care about, we’ll go almost anywhere (including into a “Mormon Hell Dream” where Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran share a cave). They get that naïve optimism in these characters can be more moving than heart-on-the-sleeve confession. Case in point: Alexandra Ncube's lovely "Sal Tlay Ka Siti."
Of the two leading missionaries, Christopher John O'Neill can do no wrong as Elder Cunningham, the perpetual second fiddle who gets a chance to be a leader. Mark Evans doesn't show as many shades of fun. His chiseled good looks and strong voice give him a presence, but he doesn't seem to be as naturally comic as his predecessors in the role. He's fine, just not exceptional.
Of course, it helps that the tunes are terrific. The less-heralded hero of “The Book of Mormon” is composer Robert Lopez, who supplies catchy song after catchy song with a consistency that hasn’t been seen since the first act of “Hairspray.” Yes, he's the same guy who wrote "Let It Go" from "Frozen." The guy has chops.
Seeing the show a second time didn't reveal any new facets but also didn't diminish the fun. Once again, though, I wondered if many people in the convulsive audience really got the message of the show: that religion can do important things even if we take its stories as metaphorical rather than literal truth.
That’s a shockingly radical statement for a popular musical comedy.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly identified previous theater credits for Mark Evans. He did, in fact, star in West End productions of "Wicked" and "Ghost" but not "The Book of Mormon." Apologies for the error.