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‘Book of Mormon’ musical called surprisingly sweet

March 23, 2011

NEW YORK

A Ugandan villager in the new Broadway musical from the creators of “South Park” offers a plaintive love song about paradise ― and the object of her yearning is none other than Utah’s capital.

“Salvation has a name ― Salt Lake-y City,” croons Nabalungi (played by Nikki M. James) in “The Book of Mormon,” which opened for previews at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in February and ended with a standing ovation.

The lyrics are ironic, of course, as is much of the story written and directed by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in conjunction with Robert Lopez, who helped compose the award-winning musical “Avenue Q.”

Sure enough, the production, which opens March 24, is bawdy and irreverent. Many believers would see it as a blasphemous assault on scriptures, much like the pair’s animated TV series. But the satire and tone were not as hostile as many Mormons feared.

“I was expecting to be offended,” said Anne Christensen, a 22-year-old LDS New Yorker, “but was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly sweet it was.”

Her mother, Janet Christensen, added: “It’s not G-rated, but they treated us with affection. And they did their homework.”

The play is a story about faith and doubt, with actions and themes that will be familiar to most Utahns, no matter their religious tradition.

The set includes the outside frame of an LDS temple, with a spinning Angel Moroni on top. There are brief appearances by LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, his successor, Brigham Young, Book of Mormon figures Mormon and Moroni, and Jesus himself.

The main characters, though, are LDS missionaries in white shirts, ties and those ever-present name tags.

The first scene shows about a dozen missionaries happily ringing doorbells and claiming all answers “are in the book,” holding up copies of The Book of Mormon.

For the next two hours, these young men sing about temptation, sexuality, guilt and fear, and about believing sometimes-ludicrous doctrines. They deal with differences and egos and doubt.

One mismatched pair, Elder Price (played by Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (played by Josh Gad), is sent to Uganda, where AIDS has decimated the population and the locals believe having sex with a virgin is the only cure. A local warlord is threatening to attack and circumcise all the women.

Price, a by-the-book leader who thought Orlando, FL, would be a perfect place to do his two-year stint, is convinced that he can change the world by baptizing the most people. He is confident and cocky.

Cunningham, a geeky but eager misfit, just wants to be liked. He hasn’t actually read the Mormon scripture but loves the stories of “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” and mixes them into his preaching.

In one powerful number, “I Believe,” Price belts out a string of peculiarly Mormon teachings ― that ancient Jews sailed to America, that God lives on a planet called Kolob, that in 1978 “God changed his mind about black people” and that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Mo.

Later, Price begins to doubt those stories, which triggers a “spooky Mormon hell dream,” in which he sees serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and Genghis Khan, among other figures. Price is also haunted by two giant cups of coffee, which is prohibited by the church’s health code.

That leaves Cunningham, who has a “problem” with lying, alone to convert the Ugandans and leads directly to some hilarious antics and miscommunication.   

Chris Bono, a spokesman for the producers, said that “this is not just a spoof of Mormons, and it’s not cynical.”

In response to media requests before the musical’s preview, the LDS Church released the following: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

Parker and Stone have said they love Mormons “and it showed,” said Graceann Bennett, a Mormon from Chicago. “It was like loving teasing. I don’t think you could get to that sweetness in today’s world without a serious dose of irreverence.”

Bennett especially liked the fact that the characters were “real Mormons,” not fringe groups such as polygamists. There was not a single mention of plural marriage, “Big Love” or Mitt Romney. And, though there is a glimpse of “Mormon underwear,” there are no jokes about it.

“Americans think Mormons are all the same,” Bennett said. “This shows diversity and that Mormons can grow and change in their faith.”

Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for “The Salt Lake Tribune.”

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