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Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Book of Mormon, and The Transformative Power of Art

Warning: I give away the whole dang plot, so if you've never seen or heard of the whole dang plot, then don't read this! 

Last night, I finally saw the musical The Book of Mormon. I was especially lucky to see it with a liberal but practicing Mormon friend, who pointed out the ways that the writers *really* understand Mormonism, like the names of the 18 year-old "Elders," (Price, Grant, Green, Young, Smith) which she said are all old pioneer Mormon names, meaning these kids come from the best Mormon families; or the perfect hairdos on the Mission President and other Mormons of authority who come to see the miraculous mission that has baptized more souls than any in Africa. 

The musical was a lot funnier, a lot more poignant and a lot more painful than I imagined it, largely due to a truly brilliant cast. Round, bouncy Cody Jamison Strand creates such a complete, awkward, socially inept and needy, creative nerd-person as Elder Cunningham, and so, ultimately, does Ryan Bondy, as his egotistical elder partner. (No, this does not mean that Elder Price is older than Elder Cunningham, it's just what Mormons on their mission call one another, these eighteen to twenty-two year olds who are not allowed to use first names with each other, or to be more than a few feet apart for two whole years.)   All the Mormon kids were individuals and effective, including a moving 
I can't find an image of this number with Mr. Bloomquist.
Daxton Bloomquist as the gay Elder McKinley, working so hard to "Turn It Off" and ultimately--to benefit of both McKinley and the musical-- failing. 

The "African" cast were also terrific: acting, dancing, and with fabulous voices, especially Candace Quarrels, as Nabulungi (mis-called by Elder Cunningham as everything from Nissan Sentra to Nala from The Lion King.) The number where she and elder Cunningham prepare for their first time (of baptism) is erotic and tender and howlingly funny. 

Ms. Quarrels, barely out of her teens, is deeply touching during the number Sal Tla Ka Siti, while I wish the moment when she tells Elder Cunningham, "You have shattered my soul," were allowed to resonate for a bit longer, because it is such a powerful one. 

The actors who play the Mormon deities--Jesus, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the Levite-cum-Angel Moroni and his dad, all double in many other roles and are hilarious in all of them.  

Although I do understand it, I find it hard to think about people (like my husband) being shocked by this show. It is so sweet and cheerful, all about being loyal to friends, being kind to one another, and joining together to fight evil (by pretend magic that threatens to turn the evil into a lesbian). 

Then, too, Book of Mormon is a loving valentine to traditional musicals, with call-outs to every Ruby Keeler dance routine, Agnes De Milles' modern-dance choreography for Rodeo and Appalachian Springs, and Jerome Robbin's Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet from The King And I. (The choreography, by Co-Director Casey Nicholaw, was incredibly witty.)

Of course, the entire musical is also gleefully obscene, even the Joseph Smith American Moses ballet with three-foot-long, snaky penises, female genital mutilation jokes, baby-rape jokes and frog-rape jokes. Hitler wears red sequins, and glazed donuts tap-dance through Heaven, which was a lot less imaginative than I thought it would be, and kind of a one (two, three, four, okay, five) joke number that went on for longer than the jokes warranted, I thought.
But then, the whole musical is filled with sequins, baby and frog rape and female genital mutilation jokes, not three-foot-long snaky penises, as well as General Butt-Fucking Naked (based on the real psychotic warlord, Liberian General Butt-Naked) who is ultimately defeated with the "I will turn your clitoris into a nose," joke--yes, that old thing, but hey, if it converts General BFN to Mormonism--or rather Arnoldism, who really cares? After watching a bunch of white-shirted, white boys sing, "I am Africa," while ignoring the Africans around them, after watching Ugandans presented as naive victims in Act I only to have them skewer missionaries, religious ideas, and the medical complex in Act II, I would become a follower of Arnoldism myself, if I weren't a Reform Jew, which amounts to almost the same precepts Arnoldism follows (apart from the door-bell ringing to find converts.) 
And yes, my favorite line in the whole musical probably belongs to the converted General BFN. "Hello," he sings. "My name is Elder Butt-Fucking Naked. 
Did you know the clitoris 
Is a holy sacred thing?

My Mormon friend she hasn't laughed that hard in years. I agree completely. I missed the magical, transformative thing that I have seen happen lately in musicals, but that, my friends, is the subject of another post. See this touring company if you can. It's worth it. (Though we were able to get very inexpensive tickets via the lottery process.) 

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