Review: ‘The Book of Mormon’ cast sings with missionary zeal at the Ahmanson, but ...
A lot of you are going to hell.
For ye who looketh upon “The Book of Mormon” and laugh shall never inherit the kingdom of God.
But, hey, don’t worry. You’ll have lots of company.
The sacrilegious musical has been running for nine years on Broadway and has just returned to Los Angeles for its fourth engagement, this time dropping into the Ahmanson Theatre after 2012, ’14 and ’17 visits to the Pantages.
No branch of belief is left unblasphemed as this show humorously ponders faith, particularly the uniquely American religion of Mormonism and the headstrong U.S. spirit that its missionary zeal seems to represent. Although delivered with a gutter mouth (the show comes with a parental advisory for explicit language), the message comes across compassionately, slipped in amid a totally awesome lineup of songs.
So, first things first: How is the current cast? One word: fantastic.
And how about the show itself: Are the jokes aging well? Um… Er… Uh… Blessed are those who are nice, so let’s get back to the cast.
At its core, “The Book of Mormon” is a road trip buddy comedy inspired by the practice of sending young missionaries out two by two. The central roles catapulted original cast members Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad to fame. Ben Platt, in Chicago, similarly got an early break.
Here, Liam Tobin is picture-perfect as Elder Price, who so excels during missionary training that everyone expects extraordinary accomplishments during his two years of service.
Tobin is tall as can be, so all of the other missionaries literally look up to him, and every inch is chiseled. The football-hero looks are backed up by a high baritone that blasts through the theater with pop-star power. And, as Tobin displayed while portraying Gerry Goffin in “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical” when its tour first swung through the Southland, his charisma is off the charts.
Price is mismatched, or so it would seem, with Elder Cunningham, who is nerdy, rumpled and clingy. Also stereotypically Jewish, which is part of the show’s buckshot humor, along with the fact that every one of the cute Mormon boys comes off as at least a little bit gay.
Hidden behind chunky, black-framed glasses, Jordan Matthew Brown adopts a pinched, dorky character voice, but he’s got power-pipes too, and he’s a gifted comedian.
The secondary performers are terrific as well, particularly Andy Huntington Jones as a district mission leader whose divine light shines a bit gayer than everyone else’s, and Alyah Chanelle Scott as a pure-spirited young local who responds to the missionaries’ teachings.
Truly, the whole troupe is remarkable. Any performer could step into a lead role and knock the roof off the place. Bravo too for diversity. People of color constitute half of the company.
But now it’s time to talk about “The Book of Mormon” uh-ohs.
At the end of training, missionary pairs get assignments like Norway and Japan. Price and Cunningham get Uganda.
The show prides itself on stereotyping absolutely everyone, but the outrageousness gets carried to an extreme in the depiction of this African nation. Some observers have been calling out the distortions from the start. More are speaking up now.
A villager’s summary execution by a warlord gets played for horror as well as blood-splattered laughs. AIDS is mined for humor too. Desperate for a cure, a superstitious man seeks sex with a purifying virgin — even an infant will do. Cunningham, scrambling to avoid catastrophe, deflects the gullible guy to a different branch of the animal kingdom. Even the sweet young convert gets jibed. She’s so shut-off and desperately poor that she treats an old portable typewriter as a texting device.
That barely scratches the surface of the often-demeaning attempts at humor, which have to be put across by black actors, much as their Asian Pacific colleagues do in “Miss Saigon.”
America today is thinking more resolutely about racial and social inequality. It is wrestling with the consequences of profiling and xenophopia. “The Book of Mormon” can no longer hide from this.
The show was created by “South Park” masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone, working with Robert Lopez, the music man whose previous credits included “Avenue Q” and afterward, “Frozen.” As in “South Park,” the humor here straddles a line between stupid and brilliant.
When the jokes land, as they often do, the audience responds with cascades of laughter. Songs are met with whoops and thundering applause. Mormons and faith in general come off pretty well. Belief, after all, binds us in communities, and working together, perhaps we really can make a paradise of Earth.
But in its depiction of black people, “The Book of Mormon” has always carried a fatal flaw.
'The Book of Mormon'
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, some exceptions; ends March 29
Tickets: $45-$249 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission)
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