Years ago, when I was living in England, one day the doorbell rang and there stood two painfully clean-cut young men in white dress shirts, narrow ties and pearly smiles.
“Hello!” one of them grinned, holding up a serious-looking volume. “My name is Elder Smith, this is Elder Jones, and we would like to share with you this most amazing book.”
They were, of course, Mormons, posted to London for their two-year missionary tour of duty. Curious, I invited them in, offered coffee or tea (“Um, no thanks, we’re all set” – I soon learned Mormons eschew stimulants; one strike already) and was soon being introduced to the myths and mores of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The tuition continued for a couple more visits, but strikes two and three came pretty quickly. I started reading the Book of Mormon, which purports to be an account of ancient Israelites who sailed from Judea to South America and were visited by Jesus during the mysterious three-day hiatus between his crucifixion and resurrection. From it, I learned that half of those settlers were bad people that God turned into black people for their sins, and from the earnest Elders that black people were welcomed as converts but not quite full members of the brotherhood.
Less than halfway through, I closed the Book, a turgid chronology allegedly translated from mysterious “golden plates” discovered in upstate New York in the 1820s, written in a clumsy imitation of King James English. Strike three. It was “just so boring,” as one of the missionaries confesses in the musical I saw last week.
I had never seen The Book of Mormon before its national tour stopped off at Hartford’s Bushnell Performing Arts Center. I knew of it, of course. It’s been selling out on Broadway since 2011, at which time it held the all-time Are You Kidding? prize for Most Improbable Premise for a Hit Musical – a trophy lately snatched by Hamilton. But all I really knew about it was that it’s a cheeky lampoon of Mormonism created by the cheeky authors of South Park.
The first number opens with the actual greeting I got from my Mormon visitors, but here the evangelical pair of 19-year-old virgins are Elder Price, a toothy self-publicist, and Elder Cunningham, a dumpy dork. They’ve been posted to a rural village in Uganda which is populated, naturally, by black people, who are plagued by dysentery and AIDS and terrorized by a murderous warlord named Butt-Fucking Naked – in other words, beset by problems more pressing than the state of their souls.
But while it touches on some “real” issues (including female genital mutilation), the show is more sendup than satire, with the Mormon church performing the role of sitting target, much like Donald Trump’s on Saturday Night Live. The Ugandan locals are depicted as ignorant and credulous – but then so are the Mormons.
Aside from the relentless profanities that define the Africans’ dialect and the South-Park-ish scatology, the show struck me as a parody of old-fashioned musicals, with songs (cute lyrics, derivative tunes) exploding into manic dance numbers and the plot twists’ final resolutions visible from the back row.
For me, the surprise highlight of the evening was PJ Adzima, a Valley native, who is deliciously fey as the not-so-tightly closeted Elder McKinley (on confronting your feelings: “Imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes. Find the box that’s gay and crush it!”). The two leads are appropriately fatuous but weak-willed (Gabe Gibbs) and self-doubting but puppy-eager (Conner Peirson), and Leanne Robinson’s slender frame houses Tabernacle-quality pipes as the village girl who accepts conversion as her ticket to the Promised Land – a.k.a. Salt Lake City.
Production photo by Joan Marcus
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