The Book of Mormon (Revisited)

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Two years ago I saw the touring production of The Book of Mormon at The Kennedy Center and was utterly blown away. I wrote a column at the time about the profound content of The Book of Mormon, because of its brilliant depiction of the role of human imagination and metaphor in religious language and practice. I found this megahit musical comedy by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone to be “one of theater history’s most significant contributions to global understanding and world peace.” With missionary zeal, I’ve been exhorting everyone since to see the show.

Last night I returned to The Book of Mormon—which given my reverence for the musical had a shrine thing going on. A touring company with an all-new cast is “back by popular demand” until August 16. And I can rapturously report that the show I saw last night is just as good as—maybe better than—the one that blew me away in 2013.

The comic character who most embodies the musical’s revelatory riff on faith is a young Mormon man named Elder Cunningham. He gets paired with another young Mormon man, Elder Price, and deployed on a missionary junket to Uganda. As scripted, Cunningham is the chubby Mutt to Price’s lanky Jeff, the schlubby Costello to Price’s strapping Abbott.

The role of Elder Cunningham is a plum one for someone plump, and Cody Jamison Strand owns it. With an infectiously giddy laugh, a knack for physical buffoonery and nimble dance moves, genius comic timing, and a voice that ranges hilariously from squealing falsetto to faux-macho basso, Strand is an absolute knockout. Expect him to be the next Nathan Lane, the next Bert Lahr, the next Zero Mostel. Strand—who played the part previously on Broadway (right out of the University of South Dakota)—is a major reason for anyone contemplating seeing this road show to book tickets pronto.

David Larsen, who plays Cunningham’s companion Price, also brings it. The two have stunningly gorgeous voices, whether harmonizing  (as on the lovely duet “I Am Here for You”) or belting out solos (Larsen on “I Believe,” Strand on “Man Up”).

A third lead, Candace Quarrels, plays Nabulungi, a young woman whom Cunningham and Price befriend in Uganda. Quarrels simply soars on her solo ode to Salt Lake City, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” and the duet that she and Strand sing after coyly having their first coitus, “Baptize Me,” nearly stopped the show.

There is not a nano-instant in this production that hints of long-run-hit fatigue. The choreography and singing by the entire company—the Mormon entourage and the Ugandans alike—is as sharp, polished, and quicksilver fresh as can be. The insanely creative contributions of Directors Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, Choreographer Nicholaw, and Music Supervisor Stephen Oremus are evident in every delightful detail. And the original lighting by Brian MacDevitt, costumes by Ann Roth, and scenic design by Scott Pask seem brand-sparkling new.

There’s no better time to take in this modern masterwork of musical comedy. By some rare theatrical alchemy this ridiculously heretical entertainment appeals to people who are devout and people who are not, to people who adore big Broadway musicals and people who’ve never been to one in their life.

The Book of Mormon is a hit show you have to see to believe.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

The Book of Mormon plays through August 16, 2015  at  The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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