(Disclaimer – I was provided two complimentary tickets to The Book of Mormon by Des Moines Performing Arts)
Last January, my ears perked when the Civic Center announced that the award-winning Broadway smash-hit musical, The Book of Mormon was coming to Des Moines in 2013. This is the first tour for the hugely popular musical and Des Moines is only the sixth city in the entire country to welcome the show. Before a word can be said about the performance, a round of applause must be given to Des Moines Performing Arts for bringing the best of the best in Broadway entertainment to Des Moines.
As most know, The Book of Mormon was created by the creators of the animated show South Park. But did you also know that it was also born from the co-creator of Avenue Q and the choreographer of Monty Python’s Spamalot? That resume alone was enough for me.
The show begins in Provo, Utah at the Latter Day Saints Church Missionary Training Center. We meet a gaggle of Elders including Elder Kevin Price, the clear standout of the class. We also meet Elder Arnold Cunningham, played brilliantly by Christopher John O’Neill. Elder Cunningham is awkward, nerdy, and at times a bit absurd. He’s a compulsive liar that despite nearing the completion of his training, hasn’t actually read The Book of Mormon from which the religion is based. Cunningham and Price are paired together and sent to the African country of Uganda to recruit new members into the Church.
Upon their arrival, the missionaries learn that converting Ugandans will be most difficult as they worry more about poverty, war, and AIDS. As someone that has had little difficultly reaching his goals, Elder Price becomes increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the African nation. Eventually, Elder Price decides that Uganda is a lost cause and before the Mission President can receive a grim report on their progress, he gives up in the hopes of getting a transfer to his beloved Orlando, Florida. Elder Cunningham, who believes that he and Price are best friends, offers to follow him, but his shoved off and dumped by Price. Cunningham decides to take his own fate into his hands and sings one of the funniest songs of the show, “Man Up.”
In the second act, as Elder Cunningham tries to teach a village of Ugandans about The Book of Mormon, his inexperience comes through and forces him to take drastic steps by making up aspects of the religion. Cunningham involves Star Trek, Star Wars, and many other pop culture references into the religion. The villagers are impressed by Cunningham’s words and all agree to convert to Mormonism and be baptized. After Price experiences a “Mormon Hell Dream,” he decides that it’s not the villagers that are the problem, but the evil General, whose name I can’t write here, that is the one that needs converting.
After a hilariously unsuccessful conversion of the General, Price returns to the missionaries to learn of Cunningham’s great success. As the Mission President arrives in Uganda to celebrate the success, Cunningham knows his lies are about to come to light. The recent Mormon converts in the village learn of the lies they were told, but learn a valuable lesson when Price and Cunningham save them from the General that has come to kill them all. They learn that despite the lies, religion is about believing that religion actually helps people, despite Cunningham’s embellishments.
There are so many parts of the show that I’ve been forced to leave out, just because they are downright obscene. Let me be clear – The Book of Mormon is not for kids. It’s obscene, vulgar, and could be construed to be offensive by some. At the same time, it’s one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen on the Civic Center stage. My face hurt at the end of the show from laughing so much. Whether you’re laughing the ridiculous medical procedures that were required of women in Africa or Cunningham’s repeated mispronunciation of villager Nabulungi’s name (Nicholas Cage, Nicoderm CQ, among others), you too will laugh all throughout The Book of Mormon.
The songs of The Book of Mormon are hilarious on their own. I laughed so hard during “Man Up,” “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” and “Joseph Smith American Moses,” that I may need to go back again just so I can hear all of the lyrics. The Book of Mormon was well worth the one year wait. It was everything that I had hoped for and had heard about since it opened on Broadway.
Go see the show. Laugh, be offended, then laugh some more.
The Book of Mormon plays at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines until February 3.