REVIEW: Hello! ‘Book of Mormon’ is head-shaking funny

Feb. 15, 2014 @ 03:14 PM

You know how when your younger brother makes jokes that are raunchy yet you still laugh? That’s a lot of the humor in “The Book of Mormon,” the hit Broadway show whose national tour is now at the Durham Performing Arts Center. It is sold out through its Feb. 23 run.

“The Book of Mormon” was created by the men behind “Avenue Q” and “South Park.” If you know anything about either, you should know what to expect at this production. There is sophomoric humor used for shock value, though “South Park” is a generation old now, so there’s not much shock or surprise in the idea of boundary-pushing language used for comedic effect. Indeed, a scene or two feels like watching the animated television show come to life with real people, like in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which is ridiculous and funny.

“The Book of Mormon” pushes boundaries so much, and so obviously, that being offended from a religious standpoint – it’s all of Christianity they skewer, not just Mormonism – is a waste of time. It’s a joke. They’re joking. And they tell a joke pretty well, if that kind of humor is your taste. Even if it’s not, it is near impossible to avoid laughing during the production. And underneath those jokes is a pretty thoughtful message about doing good regardless of your religious motivation.

Elder Cunningham is played by a comedian, Christopher John O’Neill, who is simply hilarious every time he moves, much less delivers his lines. Talk about stage presence. He is opposite Welsh actor Mark Evans, who has an extensive theatrical resume, including “Wicked.” Evans is the buttoned up Mormon missionary Elder Price, who is paired with Elder Cunningham to go not to sunny Orlando, but AIDS-, famine- and war-torn Uganda.

Both elders’ expectations change when reality hits. As one character notes: “Africa is nothing like ‘The Lion King.’” Indeed. The villagers and other missionaries already there offer entertaining performances of song and dance after song and dance. There is no pause for watch-checking in this show.

On to why this production won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The stage performances are top notch, with every mark met and every song and dance nailed. It’s a showcase of all musical theater, when you realize that behind the comedy are fantastic choreography styles of multiple eras (with top hats, even), wonderful voices (Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi) and fabulous costume and set design. The music is lively as well, featuring the tour orchestra and DPAC orchestra.

For those in the audience who go because they like “South Park,” those aspects sneak up on them. During intermission at Friday’s performance, young men were overheard using the word “dude” in describing their enthusiasm for the show to their fellow theater-goers. Not everyone who uses “dude” in their vernacular is a regular at Broadway shows. But “The Book of Mormon” does that, bringing dudes and retirees together to enjoy musical theater. And it manages to provide a hilarious theatrical depiction of dysentery. Really, only the creators of “South Park” could imagine such a thing.

You shake your head as you laugh, but you laugh and laugh.


Follow on Twitter at @dawnbvaughan.