The Book of Mormon, the spectacularly popular, proselytizing musical about Mormon missionaries seeking to convert the inhabitants of a primitive Ugandan village, rang Thousand Oaks’ doorbell recently, and the community answered by coming in droves to see the American Theatre Guild’s (ATG) national touring company version of the show. ATG reportedly sold out every performance during its six-day run (July 9-14) at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks.
At its core, Book of Mormon is an old-fashioned comedy about a modern day Mutt and Jeff, Elders Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham, who become buddies while attempting to preach the Mormon religion to a people who are more interested in battling AIDS, famine, and a threatening local warlord than learning about Joseph Smith and the Founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The show’s fast-moving book and sprightly songs were written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone along with songwriter Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), employing crude, offbeat humor infused with colorful, outlandish characters. The show won nine Tony awards, including best musical, in addition to winning a Grammy for its catchy, inventive score.
Liam Tobin (Price) and Jordan Matthew Brown (Cunningham) are polar opposites in the grand tradition of mismatched buddy teams like Abbott and Costello. Elder Price is a self-centered optimist, confident that he is destined to do something spectacular (hopefully in Orlando, his personal Mecca). The toothy, Canadian-born Tobin is blessed with a strong voice, singing one of the show’s irresistible production numbers, “You and Me (But Mostly Me).” He also showcases impressive athleticism; at one point, the lanky Tobin executed a spread-eagled leap, appearing to hang in mid-air just longer than one would think possible. It’s an astonishing moment in the show that makes one want to watch him carefully for the rest of the performance to see what other gravity-defying stunts he can pull off.
In contrast, Brown’s Elder Cunningham is a hapless, self-doubting, bespectacled doofus who yearns to be liked but has a penchant for lying and fabrication. When the villagers show indifference to his clumsy attempts at explaining the Mormon religion, he proceeds to embellish the stories using elements from Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings. Brown is a natural comic who matches Tobin’s svelte movements in the production numbers, but still comes off uproariously rumpled.
Alyah Chanelle Scott was listed in the program as Nabalungi, the winsome daughter of villager Mafala (Jacques C. Smith), but in the performance on July 10, she was replaced by ensemble member Stoney B. Mootoo, who did a tremendous job, displaying a pleasing, melodious voice on “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” one of many numbers that satirizes themes from other Broadway shows, in this case, an idealized paradise (like “Bali H’ai” from South Pacific and “Never Never Land” from Peter Pan). Other Broadway references pop up at various times in the show: the villagers’ motivational mantra “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (similar to “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King), the brilliantly staged “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” (“Tevye’s Dream” from Fiddler on the Roof), “Hello” (“Rock Island” from The Music Man), and “Joseph Smith: American Moses,” the distorted tableau staged by the Ugandans that brings to mind “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I.
Highlights of the production included Scott Pask’s handsome set design, Casey Nicholaw’s original choreography, Ann Roth’s imaginative costume design for the Ugandans and Andrew Graham’s solid pit orchestra. Despite using accents that sounded more Jamaican than African, the acting was universally splendid. If you’re not offended by tasteless jokes about AIDS and cancer, endless genitalia references and cheap vulgarities, The Book of Mormon reveals a warm-hearted looneyness that is ultimately appealing in its earnestness.