A mixed crowd at Eisenhower Auditorium Wednesday evening took in one of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State’s seven showings of “The Book of Mormon” occurring this week. The show runs through Sunday afternoon.
The musical — which first appeared on Broadway in 2011 — is as known for its writers, the same minds behind adult animated comedy “South Park.” As such, many of those in attendance came with the expectation of crude, sacrilegious humor. Still, during the show’s single, 15-minute intermission, it wasn’t uncommon to hear hushed conversations mentioning a moment or two during which an audience member might have taken offense.
There’s plenty in the show to take offense at, if one were so inclined. Jesus, baptism, AIDS, female circumcision, race — it all takes a hit. However, for those willing to look past the way the show ridicules some of the more vulnerable aspects of the human condition, they’ll find “The Book of Mormon” offers a poignant commentary on modern religion and other values that go beyond religion, such as friendship, hope, confidence and faith.
The story centers around two Mormon missionaries, Elders Price and Cunningham, recently graduated from missionary training and sent off on the customary two years of service to a foreign land. The former is played by Liam Tobin, who portrays his character as the kind of a tall, good-looking young man any Mormon girl would be happy to bring home to her mother; the latter is played by Jonathan Sangster, who creates a bumbling, affable sidekick to Tobin’s hero that one can’t help but root for throughout the show.
While the two young men’s friends are sent to desirable locales such as France and Norway, despite all of Elder Price’s prayers to be sent to his favorite destination in the world (Orlando, Florida), the two are dispatched to Uganda. The country serves as the setting for the rest of the production and is caricatured in such a way that leaves audiences wondering if it’s really socially acceptable to laugh at some of the jokes made at the African locals’ expense — but the whole audience does regardless, throwing in some claps and hoots for good measure.
From the first musical number that occurs in this fictional Uganda, “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which the Ugandans translate for the missionaries as a very strong curse word directed at God, Elders Price and Cunningham realize they’re in over their heads. Their fellow missionaries (including a hilariously closeted Mormon, Elder McKinley, played by Andy Huntington Jones, who honestly should get more stage time) have their heads in the sands, as they fully subscribe to a religious method of dealing with their problems by just “turning off” any negative feelings. A warlord with a very graphic nickname is threatening death and mutilation at every turn. And, to top it all off, for some reason the missionaries can’t comprehend, the villagers aren’t too keen on learning about the Mormon faith while they have death, poverty and AIDS to address.
Despite all the show’s poking fun at religion, though, it never disparages it. In fact, through the course of their trials as missionaries, the two lead characters and their friends, both Ugandans and fellow Mormons, come away with a stronger faith, albeit one that’s slightly adjusted to fit their needs.
The approximately two-hour show flies by, thanks to its rapid storytelling and engrossing musical numbers and it leaves audience members quoting its most memorable lines and humming its tamer tunes long after curtain. For those willing to recognize a few joke-worthy aspects of religion and possibly even learn something about their own approach to faith, “The Book of Mormon” is a can’t-miss experience.
“The Book of Mormon” plays at 7:30 p.m. through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday at Eisenhower Auditorium.