Before Hamilton came along, there was another modern musical that took the world by storm, achieving rare crossover appeal with both theater and mainstream audiences and earning a place in the pop culture zeitgeist. That musical was The Book of Mormon, which premiered on Broadway in 2011, is still playing to sold-out New York audiences today, and went on to win nine Tony Awards that year, including Best Musical. With multiple touring companies now bringing the show to cities across the United States, Los Angeles is currently fortunate enough to have one back at the Pantages Theatre for the third time in the show’s life.
The Book of Mormon was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame alongside Robert Lopez, one of the minds behind Avenue Q and Frozen. As hilarious and satirical as you would expect from that pedigree, it tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries who travel to war-torn Uganda with the goal of converting Africans to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Price (Gabe Gibbs) is the egotistical golden boy, the stereotypical millennial who has been told he’s amazing every day of his life and therefore believes it wholeheartedly. The star of his class at the Mission Training Center, he knows he is destined to do “something incredible,” and hopes he’ll get to accomplish this in his favorite place in the world—Orlando, Florida. Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson) is the awkward but well-intentioned misfit, the kid who doesn’t do his homework and is a bit of an outcast, always a few steps behind the rest of his class. Oh, and he has a nasty habit of lying on the regular. When they are paired up as mission companions and assigned to Uganda, Elder Cunningham is ecstatic and immediately declares Elder Price his new best friend, while Elder Price cannot shake the feeling that he’s been ripped off with respect to both location and companion.
Upon arriving in Uganda, it is quickly apparent they have their work cut out for them—the other missionaries have failed to bring anyone to the church so far, and the severity of the issues faced by the villagers, including widespread AIDS, an evil warlord focused on female genital mutilation, and one unfortunate man who regularly reminds everyone he has maggots in his scrotum, is shocking to the idealistic Mormons used to pampered lives. As Elder Price becomes increasingly disillusioned, Elder Cunningham rises to the occasion to become the unexpected hero of the village, garnering genuine interest in the church—although he takes a few liberties with the facts, which comes back to bite him in hilarious fashion later. Nabulungi (Leanne Robinson), a smart, hopeful young woman who has always believed a better life is out there, is particularly drawn to Elder Cunningham and his creative tales and becomes instrumental in getting the rest of the village to open their minds to the idea of the Church.
I first saw The Book of Mormon only two months into its Broadway run, followed by a couple times during the first Los Angeles engagement several years ago, and I am pleased to report this show is just as hilarious the fourth time as it is the first. The music is fantastic and catchy and the jokes are rapid-fire. This cast was excellent all around, and I particularly appreciated that Gibbs and Peirson were the first pair of leads I’ve seen who looked believably 19 years old, the age of the characters, adding a youthful freshness to the story. Gibbs was hysterical and adorable in his irrational levels of optimism, and Peirson made the most of arguably the most fun role the show has to offer. Robinson was a vocal standout as Nabulungi (or, as Elder Cunningham mistakenly refers to her, Nabisco, Neutrogena, or my personal favorite, Nikki Minaj), soaring on her act one ballad “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” The ensemble was also a delight, particularly PJ Adzima as Elder McKinley, who had the audience in stitches as he sang and tap-danced about suppressing homosexual urges in one of the show’s best songs, “Turn It Off.”
If you are at all familiar with South Park, I should not need to tell you that The Book of Mormon is not for the easily offended. What strikes me every time, however, is what a positive, uplifting, universal message the show ultimately perpetuates. Sure, Mormonism is brutally criticized and questioned throughout, with even the most devout characters constantly referencing that it’s most likely a completely made-up religion, but it has a profound effect on the people of Uganda. At the end of the day, if believing in something helps people, does it matter if what they believe in is true or not? It’s a rather nice sentiment lurking there beneath the humor, and this combination, along with the songs you’ll want to listen to over and over again, is what makes this show easily one of the very best of the decade.
The Book of Mormon runs at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles through July 9th. A daily lottery for $25 tickets is held in person at the box office—you enter two and a half hours prior to the performance and two hours before winners are selected, and they may purchase up to 2 tickets with either cash or a card. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. To purchase tickets for the Pantages run, which start at $39, click here. For more information on the show and to purchase tickets for Broadway or other cities, click here.