Review: Getting religion by the neck in a hilarious 'Book of Mormon'

Most of the audience flocking to “The Book of Mormon,” which officially descended on Chicago Wednesday night like satirical manna from some warped “South Park” heaven, are looking for amusement and escape. They'll surely find salvation from the rough old world in this new production of the deliciously over-eager 2011 Broadway hit, newly crafted for Chicago with a clutch of utterly committed, fresh-faced, faux-Mormon lads.

The true revelation in this brand new Chicago production — directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker and that stands up well to the original Broadway edition — is one Ben Platt, a hilariously funny young actor who finds an entirely different way into Elder Cunningham, the loser-geek Mormon, first played in New York by Josh Gad. He is the partner on this mission to Uganda for the alpha Elder Price (Nic Rouleau, who comes direct from Broadway and is also sharp and generally terrific, although very much in the original mold of the role). Platt, whose comic instincts are exquisite, really leans into this part, throwing himself out there with the abandonment of youth and shrewdly pushing the sincerity and charm of the character while downplaying the obvious manifestation of his quirks. Physical resemblance notwithstanding, Platt kicks the dangerous Jonah Hill-like cliches half way to Christendom, and makes the sidekick role about four times as funny and ten times as believable. He's no “American Idol” vocalist, but you won't care.

Laughs flow like Mormon wagon trains rolling West. But “The Book of Mormon,” like the enigmatic volume it lampoons so mercilessly, is actually a many-layered beast and therein, verily, lies its brilliance.

I'll try and not spoil narrative surprises. Somehow, the writing and composing team of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone managed to poke wicked fun at the all-American religion without frying on the third rail of religious faith — and all the while convincing their audience that they actually are enjoying a rather sweet show.

“The Book of Mormon” is exquisitely toned. It brilliantly exploits the protection afforded by edges and extremes and mitigates its use of gags about such comedic untouchables as Jesus Christ, AIDS, Africa and genital mutilation (and those are the printable topics) with an earnestness impossible for even a nervous prude to resist. On Wednesday, those prudes were sputtering into their shirt collars with mirth.

In terms of risky content, “The Book of Mormon” makes the Monty Python boys look like they were writing the Acts of the Apostles. Yet it has a sweetness that few other satirical dramatic works have achieved. These Mormons are so lovable you feel half-inclined to take a couple of ‘em home with you. (It’s not like anyone ever wanted to give Mel Brooks a hug.)

Thanks mostly to Lopez, the show not only has a strikingly traditional and whip-tight musical structure; fans of the genre will recognize little stylistic spoofs of “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked,” “Tomorrow” from “Annie” and, of course, the hilarious Act 2 centerpiece wherein earnest Ugandans mangle Mormon doctrine in a skewering of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from “The King and I.” Jesus also looks remarkably like Prince Herbert from “Spamalot.”

But for those who hate musicals — and plenty of “South Park” fans are in that category — the caustic, relentless Parker-Stone worldview is very much is in evidence—especially in the truly inspired “spooky Mormon Hell” nightmare sequence centered on Adolf Hitler, Johnnie Cochran (“if it don't fit ..”) and dancing cups of illicit, mock Starbucks. These, they declare, are what keeps the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints awake at night. They may well be right. This show steers closer to the truth than you might think.

On a further viewing, I was blown away again by the disciplined narrative logic these writers applied to their outrageous storytelling. That's what comes of creating a TV show from whole imaginative cloth, almost every week for 16 years. One learns how to ensure the outlandish makes perfect sense.

Look behind the gags and you can find much pondering of the central problem faced by all people of faith: the apparent inability of religion to end the suffering of the innocent. You can find discussion of how faith is an all-or-nothing proposition; who could believe about 50 percent of Mormonism? The show lampoons the ability of persons of faith to compartmentalize and, most brilliantly of all, the pervasive nature of racial condescension. Indeed, it's in the racial arena (speaking of third rails) that this show is at its most risky and most admirable, as when white Mormon missionaries sing “We Are Africa” (a dead-on take-down of the smugness of “We Are the World”) even as actual Africans (well, African characters) stare at them in quiet amazement. Chicago actor James Vincent Meredith, who plays Mafala likes he's doing Athol Fugard, is a huge asset to the show.

The one performer who needs work is Syesha Mercado, who plays the lead ingenue role of Nabulungi (her name is constantly bungled as “Neutrogena” and the like by Elder Cunningham). Mercado sings well, albeit at a certain remove, but she has yet to grab hold of the necessary vulnerability of her character and hit the lyrical gags. She was a late replacement and surely will improve with time. Pierce Cassedy, as Elder McKinley (a Mormon who insists on turning off his gay identity) is hilarious and, more importantly, very poignant.

With tickets this scarce and prices this high, you might well wonder if “The Book of Mormon” is worth your time and elevated expectations. Be not afraid, suburban pilgrim. The Chicago production pulses with the just the right combination of Broadway production values, proven material, sufficient buy-in by the original creative team (who all took a bow on opening night) and new young men on a mission, not quite from God.

THEATER REVIEW: "The Book of Mormon" at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago in 2012

4 STARS 

When: Through June 2

Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $42-$107 at 800-775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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