Review: ‘The Book of Mormon’ at The Kennedy Center

Just as Fiddler On The Roof, Cabaret, Porgy and Bess, and Hello Dolly! defined their generations, The Book of Mormon mirrors the zeitgeist of the Millennial Generation.

It is often vulgar, smarmy, snarky and below-the-belt – way below the belt – yet Book of Mormon has a genuine sweetness and innocence about it that sends the audience out into the always-busy streets of DC with a hope for a better future.

The Book of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This is the third run of Book of Mormon at the Kennedy Center since the show’s knock-‘em-dead debut on Broadway in 2011. The shows at the Center in 2013 and 2015 were sold out.

There’s a reason. It is a damn good show for people of all faiths — or no faith. If you don’t have an iron bladder, visit the head first. The Book of Mormon is so outlandishly, outrageously, shriekingly funny, you just might embarrass yourself.

In 2011, after its smashingly successful Broadway debut, the show was definitely the most popular kid in class: it took home nine Tony Awards (Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book,  Best Direction, Best Featured Actress, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Sound Design and Best Orchestrations). Then, it ran off with the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, five Drama Desk Awards including – no surprise – Best Musical, a 2011 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and a shelf or two more of trophies.

Thursday, the third evening of its current run, an eager crowd filled every one of the 2,362 seats in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center – on a work night! Plus, an online check reveals a couple subsequent shows appear to be already sold out, too.

The Book of Mormon’s book, music, and lyrics were created, over many years of R&D, by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone created the animated series South Park, and Lopez is co-creator of the hit musical comedy Avenue Q.

The eye-popping set design is by Scott Pask, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Brian MacDevitt, and sound design by Brian Ronan. Orchestrations are by Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus. Music Direction and vocal arrangements are by Stephen Oremus. Alan Bukowiecki is the conductor and music director. The directors are Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker.

Pask’s innovative sets for this show are nothing short of amazing. Arching out high above the audience seemingly in all sections is a structure resembling the architecture of the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah – Vatican City or Jerusalem for Mormons worldwide. The gothic structure frames hundreds of what appears to be stained glass panes that change color throughout the show. Onstage, the sets change rapidly, often at the snap of a finger – from a clean, urban airport to a distressed, worn-down village or the depths of hell. High up in the ceiling, two large mirrored disco balls get a workout, too.

The Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are known in this region for the soaring Temple in Kensington, Maryland, and for the young men – they always seem to be young men – canvassing neighborhoods during their two-year missionary cycle wearing their uniform of short white shirts with a name badge, black ties, black trousers, close-cropped hair and no facial hair. A familiar sight, they seem to come from rural areas of the northwest.

As the show opens at the “Mission Control Center” with the Salt Lake City temple as a backdrop, a class of ten young missionaries is about to learn where they will be posted the next two years. They demonstrate their door-to-door campaign ability with the enthusiastic song,  “Hello!”

One member of the class of 19-year olds, obviously the most superior, is Elder Kevin Price (Kevin Clay), who smoothly demonstrates how he plans to accomplish his mission. He is an earnest, eager, dedicated member of his church and is ultra-confident he will be successful. Elder Price is suave, buff, neatly dressed and physically agile.

In contrast, Elder Arnold Cunningham (Conner Peirson) is the one who probably got sent home with extra homework every day. He is sloppy, overweight, overwrought and, to blend in with his peers, he often embroiders the truth or just plain makes things up. It’s hard not to like him.

As his classmates learn they are being assigned to missions in Italy, France, Japan and other spots, Price earnestly dreams of being sent to…Orlando, the world of Disney World.

As the troupe sings and dances to “Two by Two,” Price is deeply disappointed upon learning he has been assigned to a faraway village in Uganda – and that his 24/7 companion will be the nerdy Cunningham.

For his part, Cunningham is delighted to visit the land of The Lion King.

The Book of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

At this point, the music, vocals and energetic choreography already have the audience cheering.

At the Salt Lake City airport, the audience gets a sense of what the two young missionaries’ home life has been when their parents send them off. Price, still disappointed with his assignment, is supremely self-assured that he will make a mark in the world, spread the gospel of Mormonism, and create converts wherever he goes. Price has also made it clear in “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” that he is the leader and showboat. Cunningham is to be his follower, sidekick, and backup guy. Cunningham is thrilled they’ll be friends.

Their arrival in Uganda signals bad news ahead. Immediately upon reaching their assigned village, they are robbed of their suitcases by the local warlord General Butt-Fucking-Naked (Oge Agulué). That’s not the first time they’ll encounter this human devil.

The two elders quickly learn the villagers, beaten down by abject poverty, lack of education, AIDS, and violence, are not interested in being hectored about a faith that is not only alien to them but, until 1978, they were not allowed to join because of the dark color of their skin.

Eventually, the men meet up with the rest of the Mormon missionaries. The others, led by Elder McKinley (PJ Adzima), who looks eerily like Neil Patrick Harris, reveal they’ve been in Uganda for three months – and haven’t baptized a single convert.

McKinley tells them that, to survive the next two years – and life itself, they have to not just compartmentalize their thoughts and feelings, they have to “Turn It Off,” like a light switch or a box they can crush. As McKinley sings, it’s not hard to notice he’s not terribly successful in repressing his own homosexual feelings.

As the audience is drawn deeper into this very compelling show, it enters a world where it discovers the origins of the LDS Church began in upstate New York with a bewigged  Joseph Smith (Ron Bohmer), and where appearances by Hobbits, Frodo, and other Star Wars and Star Trek characters are commonplace.

The crowd ate it up.

If the trio of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone can have this much hysterical success with The Book of Mormon, imagine what they could do with another “bible” – The Art of the Deal.

Running time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.

The Book of Mormon runs through November 19, 2017,at the Kennedy Center Opera House — 2700 F Street NW in Washington, DC. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or order online.

Note: Onsite parking is $23, payable as you enter the garage.

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2 Responses to Review: ‘The Book of Mormon’ at The Kennedy Center

  1. Douglas Hilker November 7, 2017 at 9:08 am #

    My wife and I saw the performance last Sunday. First, let me say the cast was outstanding. The show was professionally sung and danced. The volume of the sound was so high that roughly 50% of the lyrics could not be understood. The crudeness of the pantomime more than made up for that lapse. As to the content of the show itself, had I known the creators of South Park wrote the production I would not have attended. In my view, the show made fun of the utter misfortunes of others. this aspect was anything but comedic. My first instinct was to walk out. I resisted this action mainly to see how far the plot would go. If this is where musical theater has evolved, I will certainly choose my programs with in-depth research. Douglas Hilker.

    • Nicole Hertvik
      Nicole Hertvik November 7, 2017 at 10:22 am #

      Well, the Book of Mormon is definitely not for everyone. I don’t think the show is really indicative of where 21st-century musical theater is going – but it is definitely what you get when you let the creators of South Park write a musical! The beauty of theater is that there really is something for everyone. The Kennedy Center has a lot of great musicals on the docket this season, including the beautiful An American in Paris.