“The Book of Mormon,” running through May 1 at Blaisdell Concert Hall, is one of the funniest, most delightful shows to come through Honolulu in years. It is a clever, irreverent musical satire on religion – you might have guessed that – but also on growing up and the clash between ideals and reality.
Considering the Tony Award-winning show was created by Robert Lopez (known for “Avenue Q”), and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the duo behind the profane “South Park” animated series), it should come as no surprise that “Book of Mormon” is both smart and funny, full-to-the-brim with biting commentary audiences can either blithely ignore or analyze all the way down to individual words.
It is also a pastiche of contemporary references – take a notepad and see how many you can catch: “Lion King,” “Wicked,” “Frozen,” Star Wars,” “Sound of Music,” “The King and I,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Oklahoma!” to name a few.
“THE BOOK OF MORMON”
Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday; through May 1
Costs: $44.50-$182.50 at www.ticketmaster.com, charge by phone at 800-745-3000, and Blaisdell box office
“The Book of Mormon” with book, lyrics, and music by Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, set design by Scott Pask, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Brian MacDevitt, sound design by Brian Ronan. Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus; music direction and vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus; conducted by Justin Mendoza. Choreography by Casey Nicholaw; dance captain Ian Liberto.
With Billy Harrigan Tighe (Elder Kevin Price); A.J. Holmes (Elder Arnold Cunningham); Alexandra Ncube (Nabulungi); Brian Beach (Elder McKinley and Moroni); Stanley Wayne Mathis (Mafala Hatimbi); Ron Bohmer (Missionary Training Center Voice, Price’s Dad, Joseph Smith, and Mission President); Corey Jones (General); Tyler Jones (Mormon); Kelechi Ezie (Mrs. Brown); Adam Ray (Cunningham’s Dad); Josh Breckenridge (Doctor); Christopher Faison, Jamil Akim O’Quinn, and Tyrone L. Robinson (Guards); and ensemble. Running time: 21/2 hours. Note: Contains profanity and sexual references.
The plot is basic enough: Two mismatched young Mormon men are sent on a two-year mission to proselytize in a remote village in Uganda, a variation on the enduring “buddy” genre that owes as much to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “road” films of the ’40s as to the recent screen trend of “bromances.”
Armed with good intentions, innocence and stories they know don’t quite make sense, their starry-eyed confidence lasts only as long as their flight to Africa. Within minutes of arriving, they are robbed of all possessions by the warlord and gun-wielding henchmen who are terrorizing the village.
The Mormons have come to spread faith and hope, but face a world beyond anything they could have imagined: poverty, filth, AIDS, female circumcision, a people so downtrodden they are without even an expectation of hope.
When Elder Price (Billy Harrigan Tighe), the ideal Mormon, witnesses a casual murder, his faith begins to unravel, and it is the bumbling Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes) who is forced to step in. The pivotal character who turns everything around is Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube), a beautiful young African woman not yet old enough to be cynical. Desperate for a solution to save her village, she is the first to believe the missionaries can help, and is baptized in a hilarious confusion of religion and sex.
The evening has the feel of an elaborate fraternity romp, complete with swearing and sexual references that make it inappropriate for children, on very much the same level as “South Park.” But while the musical may poke fun at religion, at its core it is a story of persevering through trials and uplifting faith — even in the face of facts. The message is that facts don’t really matter; underlying them is a more powerful faith that can transform lives.
The stage emphasizes that message: An elaborate stained-glass arch serves as proscenium, creating a churchly gateway to the heavenly firmament. As the audience experiences the musical, mentally “passing through” the gateway, faith becomes manifest.
“The Book of Mormon” is compact and fast-moving, every word essential. But the music is equally slick, appealing and catchy. Religious or not, members of the audience can expect to leave humming “I Believe,” and perhaps by the final curtain, in some sense, they do.
In this touring production, every aspect is thoroughly professional, and the leads are outstanding.
Tighe is riveting as the quintessential Mormon, energetically earnest with a glinting smile, and Holmes, endearingly awkward, is the perfect sidekick/co-star. As the emotional center of the story, Ncube is absolutely darling, with a terrific Broadway voice supple enough to cover her character’s range.
There are too many in the cast to list here, but every performer is a gem. Be sure to take notice of Brian Beach as the hilarious Elder McKinley, Corey Jones as the menacing General, and Stanley Wayne Mathis as Nabulungi’s father, Mafala Hatimbi. Even cameo performers shine: Kelechi Ezie’s “Lion King” spoof as Mrs. Brown; Ron Bohmer in a variety of roles, including Joseph Smith and the booming voice from above; and on down the line.
Visuals – sets, costumes, makeup – are simple, yet inventive and effective, from Jesus Christ’s internally lit robes to free-standing doors that flip back and forth, changing scenes in an instant.
The performers were heavily miked, but the sound was generally good at Thursday’s performance, with an excellent orchestra led by Justin Mendoza.
In case you’re wondering how the Church of Latter Day Saints has reacted to the musical, the church has taken the satire in stride as an opportunity to spread the word. After the show, young men were lined up outside handing out copies of the real Book of Mormon.