“The Book of Mormon,” which opened Wednesday at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, is boisterous, bold and endearingly blasphemous.
It’s crude, in a contemporary way, and ironic in an “I love L.A.” sort of way, which is why SoCal audiences will love this spoof as much as New Yorkers praised it for its adherence to the Broadway musical form.
The 2011 Tony Award-winning musical drew a hip Hollywood audience, including Kevin Smith, John C. Reilly and even the Webster’s definition of crude, Bob Saget.
That’s a tough crowd to crack. But most of the audience cheered as if they were at a Dodgers game. They gave the show’s creators – Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame – a curtain call worthy of Prodigal sons.
“The Book of Mormon,” about two wide-eyed Mormons on a mission to Uganda, is a taut ensemble production starring Jared Gertner and Gavin Creel.
Getner, who started as an understudy in the original the Broadway production and eventually took over the sidekick role of Elder Arnold Cunningham, is a little bit Jonah Hill and a little bit Mel Brooks as a self-deprecating young nebbish who prides himself on being a follower.
Creel, who earned a couple Tony nominations for his work in “Hair” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” is Arnold’s companion, Elder Price, the very model Morman missionary who figured God would reward him for his awesomeness by sending him to Orlando for his two-year mission.
They’re both in for a harsh dose of reality. The villagers they’re sent to baptize are being terrorized by a warlord named Butt (Bleeping) Naked. Most of them have AIDS and the doctor complains he has maggots in his scrotum.
None of the other Mormon missionaries proselytizing in the village have managed to baptize one person. They cope, they explain in a hilarious old school Broadway production number, by simply turning reality on and off like a light switch.
Of the two newcomers, Elder Cunningham is the best prepared for the ordeal because he has an active imagination. Since he hasn’t actually read the Book of Mormon, he just makes things up to pacify the natives at every conflict. That leads the natives to eventually produce their own musical based on the Book of Mormon as told by Arnold, which has very little to do with the real book of Mormon, but is a whole lot of fun.
If this doesn’t sound like a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, well, it’s not. But the form is very true to the format R&H, Frank Loesser and Meredith Willson pioneered after World War II. In fact, Parker and Stone studied old Broadway production numbers on YouTube to be able to convey the ideas they wanted to get across in a musical comedy format. “Spooky Mormon Hell” looks like they were also viewing some old madcap Mel Brooks movie numbers.
The production is filled with gags that generate belly laughs, but, instead of going for laughs first, the show is built around the songs. “The Book of Mormon” started as a soundtrack and all the songs advance the plot and serve to emphasize important points in the narrative. The first act peaks with the typically big production number, which creates an arc going into the intermission. The show resolves itself with a message as it builds momentum heading into the big finish.
That message is, it’s not the literal translation that’s important, it’s the values that the story imparts. That’s why Mormons don’t object to this show. Parker, Stone and Lopez don’t make fun of the Mormons for having a polygamy past. They make fun of them for being really nice guys who just want to believe in something good. And the truly good Mormons in this show, like the truly good people in any religion, really want to do good.
“The Book of Mormon” is the hottest ticket in L.A. right now. They go for up to $175, but you can arrive early and enter a lottery for $25 ticket. The show runs through Nov. 25 and they say your best chance for optimum seats are midweek in October or November.