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Theater review: 'The Book of Mormon' at Pantages is naughty, nice and fun

This national tour production matches the verve, if not the sharpness, of the original Broadway production. The musical about two mismatched Mormon missionaries assigned to Uganda is a profane comedy with cheeky exuberance.

September 13, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Phyre Hawkins, left, Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner in "The Book of Mormon" at the Pantages Theatre.
Phyre Hawkins, left, Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner in "The Book of… (Joan Marcus )

No need to bone up on the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith before attending "The Book of Mormon" at the Pantages Theatre. Just know that this exceedingly naughty, though in the end disarmingly nice, show is devised by the minds behind "South Park" and that risqué "Sesame Street" for theater-loving adults, "Avenue Q."

In other words, leave the kids at home with a baby-sitter, or child-protective services might be knocking at your door.

Built for the irreverent Gen X faithful, all those aging slackers (myself among them) who get their news from Jon Stewart and their snarky giggles from the Onion, "The Book of Mormon" is their — our — musical.

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Not just a thunderous Broadway hit, it's a flippant assertion of demographic power, the razzing voice of a generation. Take that, baby boomers, who naturally have responded as though the show was tailor-made for them. (But then who else can afford all those still-hot Broadway premium seats?)

To succumb to the scabrous comedy of the show's creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, one must first avoid taking offense at a musical that holds nothing sacred. Not Mormon theology. Not the dire state of an African village overwhelmed by poverty and AIDS. Not even the sensitivities of unsuspecting theater-goers curious about the 2011 best musical Tony winner but completely unprepared for just how profane 21st century Broadway can be. (One number, "Hasa Diga Eebowai," a jaunty expletive-laced kiss-off to the Almighty and a spoofy retort to "The Lion King's" "Hakuna Matata," should teach these innocents once and for all.)

This national tour production gets the job done, matching the stampeding verve, if not the granulated sharpness, of the original Broadway production. The chemistry of the leads, Gavin Creel as the proudly picture-perfect Elder Price, and Jared Gertner, as the chubby, chortling Elder Cunningham, is a little more predictable here. The odd couple contours of these mismatched Mormon missionaries given the booby prize of an assignment in Uganda are rendered rather straightforwardly.

By contrast, Andrew Rannells, who originated the role of Elder Price on Broadway, infused the character's cockiness with a surprising feyness, while Josh Gad, who set the mold for Elder Cunningham in New York, brought a natural sweetness to the sloppy shenanigans of a sidekick who steals the show.

Creel and Gertner stick more closely to the broad outlines of their roles, but the musical itself is so effectively wrought that it doesn't require special piquancy from its ensemble. Cheeky exuberance will do, and this company — under the joint direction of Casey Nicholaw, the man behind the show's snazzy choreography, and Parker — has it in spades.

Farcical cruising speed is reached immediately in the absolutely divine opening number, "Hello!", in which young Mormon missionaries with nary a hair out of place ring doorbells and sing about how the Book of Mormon can pave the way to eternal life.

Politely sharing scripture ("Did you know that Jesus/ Lived here in the U.S.A.?") as doors slam in their faces, these lads are almost too sweet for the mercilessness of the comic stage. Yet straightaway the song establishes the musical's giddy tone, a peculiarly winning mix of old-school Broadway pep, cartoon American naivete and slash-and-burn satire.

The score, an ebullient pastiche in which the authors of the show rifle through the American musical songbook on a sugar high, has a sophistication that is easily overlooked amid the hilarity. It's not that the music is particularly distinguished, but there's something utterly original in the way the playfully diabolic lyrics bask in the sunshiny Broadway sound (lushly drawn out by the orchestra under Stephen Oremus' music direction).

"Turn It Off," a tune extolling the many uses of repression, is made all the funnier for becoming an occasion for the tap dance bliss of Elder McKinley (Grey Henson), a Mormon missionary with a pesky attraction to men. "I Believe," a power anthem of the treacly modern-day sort, is given an acidulous twist by its rundown of some of the more controversial aspects of Mormon history. Was it "Spamalot" that last had us whistling this merrily to sacrilege? Sondheim this isn't, though not since "Sweeney Todd" has gallows humor been pulled off with such grinning impunity.

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