“The Book of Mormon” has been a hot ticket for months. I was delighted to receive an e-mail informing me that—if I were willing to deal with “restricted seating”— (i.e., a thin pillar obscuring some of the view at Chicago’s Bank of America Theater as well as being stuck under the balcony in the very last Orchestra seating row with letter ZZZ—my ticket would be half-price at $56 rather than $113.) [*I once sat through a Rolling Stones concert directly in front of a flash pot that nearly set me on fire; accepting this offer was a no-brainer.]
The play focuses on two novice Mormon missionaries who are completing training for their obligatory 2-years of missionary work (Mitt Romney spent his time in France). As the play opens, the eager young acolytes are about to learn their new assignments. They’ll spend two years yoked with a partner, after completing training at the Church of Latter Day Saints Missionary Training Center (referred to as “Mission Control” at one point in the play).
Most of the new missionaries get plum assignments and celebrate:
“Norway! Trolls & gnomes!” say the first pair.
“France! Pastries & crepes!” say the next two.
“Japan! Soy sauce & Mothra!” exult the third pair.
And then Elder Price (Nic Rouleau) and Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt) (aka Kevin Price and Aaron Cunningham) receive their assignment: northern Uganda. To add to Elder Price’s chagrin, Elder Cunningham is a nerdy screw-up who has a tendency to creatively blend fact and fiction (okay—he lies), employing his overactive imagination. Aaron’s own father regards him, pretty much, as a failure and Aaron has few friends.
Elder Price, however, is the Golden Boy. (Actor Rouleau came straight from the Broadway cast). He is confident he is going to do great things. One of the songs he sings tells us this in no uncertain terms: “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” Aaron Cunningham is just glad to have a friend at all, especially one who is not supposed to leave his side at any time (according to missionary rules), since he has mostly been a friendless nerd up until now. Aaron thinks that Kevin will really be his best friend during the next two years.
A running joke has Elder Price convinced that Orlando is the epicenter of the world. (“I’m going where you need me most—Orlando.”) Maybe you have to have spent time in Orlando as an adult without a child in tow to identify with the barren concrete experience Orlando really represents. I spent 2 winters in a row there. Orlando makes northern Uganda look less bleak.
However, northern Uganda represents trouble with a capital “T.”
As the duo arrives in Uganda, their luggage is immediately stolen by warlords. The pair find that Uganda is not fertile ground for converts. There are already 10 missionaries in place who have failed to score a single baptism. And it doesn’t look good for Kevin and Aaron, since they soon learn that the poverty-stricken Uganda natives are dealing with an AIDS epidemic and a warlord whose mission is to circumcise all females in the village. Even the doctor of the village confesses (constantly), “I have maggots in my scrotum.” (This is one of the few phrases I can reprint that doesn’t involve using the “F” word or something else equally unprintable.)
After Elder Price witnesses a brutal slaying (gunshot at point blank range) Kevin announces he is giving up, requesting a transfer, and going home. Aaron is going to have to fend for himself. He does like an attractive native girl (played by 2008 “American Idol” finalist Syesha Mercado), Nabulungi. At various points, Elder Cunningham (Aaron) refers to Nabulungi as Nellie Furtado, Nala and Necrophilia, so there is that running joke, as well.
Aaron, the underdog, with Elder Price (Kevin) leaving, soon realizes he is going to have to step up to the plate. He will have to make it on his own (“man up”). As the lyric goes, “When someone had to die to save us all from sin, Jesus manned up and took it on the chin.” So, as Aaron also sings, “I’m talkin,’ they’re listenin.’ My stories are glistenin’.” He begins spinning a much more interesting version of the Mormon faith to the previously disinterested villagers. Aaron’s version incorporates elements of “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and bits and pieces of Aaron’s creativity run amok. Elder Cunningham’s approach leads to conversions aplenty and a vision of Salt Lake City (mispronounced in the song the villagers sing about this golden place) as the Promised Land. Soon the entire village is signing up to become Mormon. One hilarious segment involves the impromptu “play” that the villagers put on for the Mormon mucky-mucks who come to Uganda to applaud the team’s unprecedented success—to the surprise and chagrin of Kevin and Aaron—letting the Powers-that-be know what they have learned about their new faith.
While the always-welcome story of the underdog made good entertainment, the funniest lines were actual tenets of the LSD Church. “I Believe,” one of the play’s most-often quoted songs (because it is one of the few clean ones) says, “A Mormon just believes and I believe it means me getting my own planet.” Joseph Smith digging up golden plates in a field in Missouri and “Who knew the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri” or, “In 1978, God changed his mind about black people” are all true tenets of the Mormon faith—give or take a bit of poetic license with the way they’re stated onstage, and the fact that this play ran while Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was running for President of the United States just makes it all that much more apropos.
I also enjoyed the employee in the women’s rest room who had taken it upon herself to organize the lines during the 15-minute intermission. “Nobody comes in here until I say so!” barked the large African-American organizer, who let exactly 10 women in at a time and pointed out open stalls. She traffic-directed like a pro. Thanks to her, the women in the audience made it back to their seats in time for the hilarious second half.
A truly funny evening and well worth craning around a slim pillar while using small opera glasses to see the actors onstage up-close-and-personal…or at all.