‘Book of Mormon’ rude, crude — but still has heart

Here’s one musical that will really ring your chimes.

Assuming, of course, that you believe — in the church of the Broadway musical.

Make no mistake, the multiple Tony-winning “The Book of Mormon” is at least as rude and crude as advertised, with punchlines ranging from AIDS to ritual circumcision — and beyond.

You would expect nothing less from those wonderful folks who brought you “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone. (To say nothing of “Frozen” Oscar-winner Robert Lopez, a Tony-winner himself for the saucy “Sesame Street” spoof “Avenue Q.”)

But for all its irreverent satire, “The Book of Mormon”— at The Smith Center through July 6 — boasts a heart that beats with the irrepressible, undeniable energy of an old-school Broadway musical.

Not to mention the same plot structure that bolsters such Golden Age favorites as “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music.” (Seriously.)

In those shows, a plucky teacher or governess ventured far from her safety zone to share her knowledge and never-say-die spirit with the denizens of another world, whether 19th-century Siam or pre-World War II Austria.

“The Book of Mormon,” meanwhile, follows two plucky young Mormon missionaries — golden boy Kevin Price (slyly shining David Larsen) and his hapless, seemingly hopeless sidekick Arnold Cunningham (sweet, defiantly nerdy Cody Jamison Strand) — from Utah to Uganda.

There, they must minister to tribespeople who greet every tribulation — poverty, famine, disease, a bloodthirsty warlord with an expletive-undeleted name — with the philosophical chant “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” (The song may serve the same function as “The Lion King’s” jaunty “Hakuna Matata,” but — surprise! — the resemblance ends there.)

The villagers seem unlikely targets for conversion. Except for the local chief’s daughter Nabulungi (the winsome Denee Benton), who — after hearing the missionaries’ initial pitch — reveals her impeccable Disney-princess credentials with a wistful, wish-I-could-escape tribute to their home paradise, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.”

Meanwhile, back at Mormon headquarters, the bright ’n’ shiny missionaries reveal their own problems, whether it’s Elder Cunningham’s penchant for fabricating, fibbing and outright lying — or Elder Price’s apparent inability to focus on anything but his own self-apparent perfection.

Either way, there’s a Mormon way to solve it, as desperately perky Elder McKinley (Pierce Cassedy) advises: “Turn it off, like a light switch, just go click! It’s a cool little Mormon trick.”

The deliriously, hilariously showbizzy song-and-dance that follows showcases “The Book of Mormon’s” have-it-both-ways energy: Treat touchy topics with all-stops-out numbers that look as though they’ve been lifted from vintage musicals. (They don’t sound like it, however, thanks to the constant F-bomb barrages.)

Directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also did the kicky, zingy and altogether uproarious choreography) wisely keep “The Book of Mormon” bouncing from one knockout song and dance to the next, delivering fleet-footed “Watch this!” distraction on those occasions when the show fails to hit its satiric marks. (It doesn’t happen that often, but often enough to notice.)

Not to worry — “The Book of Mormon” brims with savvy stagecraft throughout. Brian MacDevitt’s Tony-winning lighting smoothly charts our pilgrims’ progress (and, eventually, their changes in perception), while Tony-winning set designer Scott Pask’s omnipresent tabernacle-style frame — topped with a rotating statue of the Angel Moroni — provides a literal reminder of where these missionaries are coming from. (And how they’re just as exotic a tribe, in their way, as the Ugandan villagers they’re trying to convert.)

And for card-carrying members of the Church of Broadway, it’s fun to play “spot the show” as this musical salutes and spoofs its hallowed ancestors.

Whether it’ll have the same staying power is debatable. But for now, “The Book of Mormon” offers ample opportunity to applaud — and laugh. Whether you feel guilty afterward depends, of course, on what you believe.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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