‘Book of Mormon’ brings profound, profane laughs to the Kennedy Center

November 29, 2021 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — “South Park” detractors love to dismiss the Comedy Central series as nothing more than raunchy, lowbrow animation for adolescents. But to do so ignores the truth that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are some of the smartest week-to-week social commentators around.

The same goes for their hit Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” which combines the doorbell-ringing plot of their indie flick “Orgazmo” (1997) with the musical ambitions of their feature film “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” (1999). Combine that with Oscar-winning songwriter Robert Lopez (“Frozen”) and you get a Broadway smash that won nine Tonys, including Best Musical.

Now, the show returns to Washington, D.C., bringing its profound profanity to the prestigious Kennedy Center from June 16 to Aug. 16. It’s one of two national tours crisscrossing the nation, in addition to the flagship show that’s dominated Broadway since 2011.

It follows a pair of Mormon missionaries — the self-centered Kevin Price (David Larsen) and the tubby fibber Arnold Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand) — on their trip to Uganda to win converts to the religion of Joseph Smith. There’s one problem: the deeply impoverished residents doubt God’s existence. But when the idealistic Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels) dreams of moving to Sal Tlay Ka Siti (aka Salt Lake City), Kevin and Arnold think they finally have a chance to spread the word.

“It’s hilarious and so smart,” Quarrels tells WTOP. “Trey and Matt have truly created something for all audiences, except for children. No kids should be at this musical!”

Indeed, the show features a subversive string of f-bombs, references to genitalia and other things we can’t print here. But if you’re not so easily offended, prepare to laugh your butt off.

“Surface level, it seems like it’s very (shticky) comedy, but it’s so moving. It stays true to the Mormon religion. All the things that are happening in Africa that seem funny, it’s all things that are actually happening. There’s a running joke about a girl’s (clitoris) being cut off, but I just saw an article the other day that … they just passed a law making the mutilazation of women’s genitalia illegal in Nigeria. It just happened like a week ago. So it’s all so relevant and so much deeper and bigger than a musical. Those two men are geniuses. They’ve created a masterpiece. And the music is good!”

The musical numbers include clever word plays (“Tomorrow is a Latter Day”), hilarious analogies (“Baptize Me” equates baptism with losing one’s virginity) and elaborate dream sequences (“Spooky Mormon Hell” features Kevin’s deepest fears of Hitler, Genghis Khan and Jeffrey Dahmer).

It all builds up to a jaw-dropping “play within a play.” While “The King & I” featured the people of Siam putting on a performance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Book of Mormon” has the Ugandan people re-enact the Book of Mormon, only it’s the warped, alternate version that Arnold has told them.

Still, the most controversial number is a “Hakuna Matata” spoof, “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” only it doesn’t mean “no worries.” It’s a middle finger to the heavens:

“There isn’t enough food to eat / Hasa Diga Eebowai. 
People are starving in the street / Hasa Diga Eebowai.”

Quarrels says the song works within the context of the story.

“The Africans have a number that is pretty controversial, but we’re saying these things because, in the circumstances of the musical, we’re miserable,” Quarrels says. “We’re in Africa, our families are dying and people are starving. If you really put yourself in the mindset and you’re staying truthful to the story, it all makes sense. I’d be pretty angry at God, too, if I were in their shoes.”

So how does the show toe the line of spoofing religion without offending the faithful?

“I think it’s just a matter of playing the role honestly,” Quarrels says. “If you set out to make fun, then it sounds like you’re making fun, but every night I get on the stage and I have to tell the story truthfully and as someone who genuinely believes every word that I’m saying.”

The deftness at which the show handles this touchy subject explains The New York Times’ claim of “The Best Musical of This Century.” You’ll smile in amazement as the gutsy stage performers convert the formally-dressed Kennedy Center audience to clap along to a song about dysentery:

“Sh*t go in the water, water go in the cup,
Sh*t go down the stomach, sh*t come out the butt.” 

Pure poetry! Bravo! Encore!

November 29, 2021 | (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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