Dateline—Well, better “Latter” than never. The musical all the fuss was about—nine 2011 Tony Awards and a never-ending Broadway run—is preaching the word (and the word frequently has four letters) in Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall this week, kicking off Performing Arts Fort Worth’s “Broadway at the Bass” series. It’s the third time the national tour of The Book of Mormon has stopped in these parts since 2013, but a first for Fort Worth. And though laughing at this show may make you feel you’re headed for H-E-double-hockey-sticks…it doesn’t disappoint.
This is sometimes sharp, sometimes stupid, and always foul-mouthed fun from the creators of TV’s South Park and the puppet musical Avenue Q—but The Book of Mormon leaves a surprisingly sweet aftertaste, courtesy of its ultimately inspirational message about giving your whole self to something (whatever) you believe in. Not bad for a musical about young Mormon missionaries that references AIDS, baby rape and female circumcision in Africa—and that uses the word “clitoris” almost as often as the F-word. If the blood is already rushing away from your head, you’d better scalp your ticket and stay home (scalped tickets, BT-dubs, are going for upwards of $400.00). Still, there were surprisingly few walkouts on an opening night full of, as the Mormons would say, elders. By now, people know what they’re getting.
Is it the second coming of the American musical? Not really. The songs, co-created by Jeff Lopez (Avenue Q and Frozen), and South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are cute and catchy, but not especially memorable—though the opening “Hello” number, full of ding-donging Mormons at your door, is a classic. Musical theater buffs, if they’re alert, will hear snatches of song lifted from other shows (The Sound of Music, Annie, The King and I, The Music Man, and of course The Lion King, to name a few) as an homage from the trio of creators—all of them guys with music theater backgrounds dating back to their high school and college days.
At heart, this is a “buddy movie” of a type we know well. It’s about two guys thrown together by Fate, forced to take on challenges that will make or break them as a team. Elder Price (Billy Harrigan Tighe), the go-getter Mormon teen (he’s 19 when his two-year “mission trip” begins) is the ambitious, All-American type. He’s shocked and visibly disappointed to be sent to Uganda (not his favorite place, Orlando) and paired with geeky Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), who is a bit too desperate for a best friend…or really, for any friend at all.
Tighe manages to be more amusing than annoying in the tough role of Kevin Price, so certain of what he believes and where he’s going. (First, convert everyone in Africa; second, reap that heavenly reward—my own planet!) “You and me, but mostly me/Are gonna change the world forever,” he sings to his buddy, Arnold Cunningham—who is happy to agree that “Every hero needs a sidekick…Every dinner needs a side dish”—and he’s it.
Holmes is outright hilarious as Cunningham, who (it turns out) hasn’t actually read The Book of Mormon and has a tendency to make stuff up, mixing Mormonism with hobbits, Jedi warriors, Star Trek and such. He’ll try anything to spark an interest in the group of bored, war-weary Africans they’re trying to reach. Cunningham’s awkward efforts to bond with Price are beautifully played by Holmes; he tucks his new friend into bed with a blankie and his mother’s Mormon lullaby, and his eyes never leave Price’s face—like a puppy looking for a pat on the head.
In Uganda, Price and Cunningham find all the young Mormons who’ve come before them, holed up together in mission HQ—and in despair because they haven’t baptized even one African. For some reason, the Ugandan villagers aren’t much interested in fanciful imported religions; they’re too worried about starvation, disease and a murderous local warlord with a vulgar nickname name that uses the F-word as an adjective (Corey Jones). The local doctor punctures any soaring religious moments Price and Cunningham might try to gin up by intoning the same single line: “I have maggots in my scrotum.” Bummer.
The missionaries are greeted by the blunt and exasperated Mafala (nicely done by Stanley Wayne Mathis), a local with a super-cute and spunky daughter. Nabalungi (Alexandra Ncube) is a natural-born leader with a showtune voice, and Elder Cunningham’s eyes go wide the minute he sees her. Ncube does a soaring job with her songs, including the hymn to that Utah paradise “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” Cunningham never gets her name right, but O. M. Gosh, does he want her.
Elder McKinley (a cute-as-buttons Brian Beach) and the other Mormon “lost boys” morph into an amusing singing-dancing chorus as they ponder the complications of toeing the Latter Day line. McKinley, whose feelings for a male friend turned into something very un-Mormon, doesn’t just try to pray away the gay. He uses a “nifty” Mormon strategy: “Turn it off, like a light switch/There, it’s gone….I’m all better now.” Casey Nicholaw’s choreography (he also co-directs with Trey Parker) takes earnest white-boy dance stylings to a new comic level.
There are cameos by everyone from Mormon founders Joseph Smith (Ron Bohmer) to Darth Vader, Hitler, and some unidentified hobbits. Jesus himself shows up—beach-boy blond and lit from within like a diorama at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake—just long enough to tell Elder Price what he thinks of him. (Oops, there’s another four-letter word.)
Meanwhile, the ensemble, playing everyone from African villagers to Mormon missionaries, keeps things lively. Ann Roth’s colorful costumes and Scott Pask’s scenic designs get the job done, and Pask’s cloud-filled Mormon Tabernacle blends amazingly well with the sky painting in the Bass Hall dome. If there’s one gripe, it’s that between a too-loud orchestra and body mikes on the cast that blur some of the dialogue, it can be hard to hear the lyrics. (Look ‘em up online later.)
So yes, it’s a fun show—but Parker, Lopez and Stone didn’t invent bawdy, blasphemous theater. Giant strap-on penises in one song number? Pshaw—the ancient Greek playwrights had those in their onstage bag of tricks a couple of millennia ago. As the song says: Everything old is new again.