SALT LAKE CITY — It’s hard to imagine a more devout audience for the hit musical "The Book of Mormon" anywhere else in the country, whether that devotion is to religion or to poking a little fun at the religion they live among. Wednesday night’s crowd at Salt Lake's George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater seemed ready to laugh or ready to cringe, depending on their relationship to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The show, which runs through Aug. 20, is “back by popular demand,” according to posters at the shiny new Eccles Theater. A different cast of the Broadway tour played to sold-out crowds two summers ago at the Capitol Theatre around the corner.
Just in case my status as a non-member of the LDS Church made me tone deaf, I shared my extra ticket with my good friend Elayne Wells Harmer, whose son returns from his LDS mission in two weeks. That he is returning from Orlando was an added bonus, since Orlando is also a running joke in the musical.
Harmer enjoyed the singing and the choreography (Gabe Gibbs as Elder Price and Conner Peirson as Elder Cunningham are show-stoppers), and is pretty immune to jabs at Mormonism, she says. But the portrayal of the missionaries as goofy, clueless young men whose pants don’t reach their shoes, rubbed her the wrong way.
Her son, she notes, “has put so much heart and effort into his mission, trying to bring a message of hope and love, because he wants to share something that’s been life-changing for him.”
There was no lack of heart (and other body parts) in Wednesday night's production, but that earnestness was at times buried under a heap of scatological jokes. The upbeat, down-and-dirty musical revels in its profanities and puerile outrageousness, as it satirizes Mormon culture, religious fervor, Africans and “The Lion King.”
The show begins with an iconic bit of doorbell ringing, moves on to the Missionary Training Center, and quickly takes audiences to Africa, where the hyper-enthusiastic Elder Kevin Price (“I want to be the Mormon who changed all of mankind!”) and the hyperbolic Elder Arnold Cunningham (“you’re making up stuff again, Arnold”) find themselves in a village plagued by AIDS, dysentery and warlords, in a district where Mormon missionaries have yet to baptize one person.
The villagers are dismissive at first, raising a middle finger to God’s apparent indifference and are distrustful of yet another group of Christians eager to convert them. It is the young woman Nabulungi (played with heartbreaking innocence and rafter-reaching vocals by Myha’la Herrold) who latches on to the idea of a better life in Sal Tlay Ka Siti.
Not since the Beach Boys sang its love song to the city more than 50 years ago has Salt Lake been so immortalized in a catchy number, even if in this case the depiction, like the spelling, is a little skewed. “The warlords there are friendly,” sings Nabulungi, “they help you cross the street.”
She eventually becomes disillusioned but then is reminded by villagers that the imagined paradise of Sal Tlay Ka Siti “isn’t an actual place.” The cast had to pause here while the audience cheered, before continuing: “It’s an idea. A metaphor” (more cheering). To that, Nabulungi’s father adds: “You need to remember that prophets always speak in metaphors.”
This relationship of fact and metaphor, faith and story is key to understanding where the show’s writers — Trey Parker and Matt Stone of TV’s “South Park” and Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q” and “Frozen” — seem to be leading us.
Reviewers across the country have generally summed up “The Book of Mormon” as raunchy but ultimately sweet, and indeed the missionaries come across as not just well meaning but as young people who can change lives through service. Yes, you may leave the theater feeling a little uneasy about the juncture of faith and fiction, but you’ll feel inspired by the crescendo of the final number. Like any good musical, the ending makes you feel good inside.
“The past may be in tatters, but today is all that matters,” sing the missionaries and the Ugandans, “because today is yesterday’s latter-day!”
Of course this is religion via “South Park.” The show ends with a new holy tome, “The Book of Arnold,” and after the finale’s swelling of emotion the writers slip in one final crass line, delivered with plaintive gusto by the village doctor.
It’s a sweetness, as always with Parker and Stone, undercut by a dose of jarring, crude reality.
Content advisory: "The Book of Mormon" contains strong language, crude humor and many sexual references.
Elaine Jarvik is a former Deseret News writer, and is currently a freelance writer and playwright.