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REVIEW: The Book of Mormon‘s Newer Testament (Orpheum Theatre)

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Before Hamilton shot onto the scene early last year, The Book of Mormon was the hottest ticket on Broadway. This smash musical hit won a hefty nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical…but does it live up to it’s hype? Yes, yes it does. And you might actually have a decent chance to see it, since The Book of Mormon‘s national tour has returned to the Twin Cities and plays at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis through May 29.

An attempt at missionary work. Photo by Joan Marcus.
An attempt at missionary work. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Book of Mormon is a side-splitting, feel-good, R-rated musical comedy that turns out to be rather wholesome, considering its pedigree. The authors are Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park and Team America: World Police fame) and EGOT-winner Robert Lopez (Avenue Q). All three are well-known for work that sends up modern life and popular culture in deceptively juvenile and surprisingly sentimental fashion. (Still, better see this one without the kids. Well, the little ones – the high schoolers will love it just as much as you do.)

The story follows two young Mormons as they set off on their 2-year mission, and what begins as a good-natured caricature of Mormon beliefs and practices becomes a story about the role of faith in people’s lives and the power of belief. I won’t promise you it won’t be offensive, but the biggest and deepest laughs from the audience on Wednesday night were full of much more recognition than derision. As a testament to the show’s charm and cheeriness, a dream sequence in Act II including some of the most hated figures from history and even the devil himself met with laughter and delighted applause. (Say what you will, people can’t resist a kick line!)

Ryan Bondy appears as Elder Price (punchable golden boy and missionary extraordinaire,) paired with the terminally awkward yet exuberant Elder Cunningham, played by Cody Jamison Strand. Bondy reaches just the right mixture of smarmy self-satisfaction and disarming innocence, and Strand is, to use the medical term, completus funnius madeyuppus (“completely made of funny”). Bondy and Strand drive the action with their strong chemistry and charisma, but the beating heart of the show comes in the form of Nabulungi, a young woman who is the first to have faith in the missionaries’ stories, played by the enchanting Candace Quarrels.

Ryan Bondy and David Aron Damane at the climax of "I Believe". Photo by Joan Marcus.
Ryan Bondy and David Aron Damane at the climax of “I Believe”. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bondy’s Elder Price is squeaky clean and the consummate showman, and Strand’s Elder Cunningham is a disaster of ticks and ridiculous inflections who manages to land every laugh. In a show full of such arch nonsense, Quarrels is still able to turn the mood on a dime, bringing a genuine tear to the eye with her delicate and hopeful ballad “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” her vision of a Mormon paradise. Another notable scene-stealer is Daxton Bloomquist as Elder McKinley, the closeted head of the Mormon mission who leads the other elders in the chipper ode to religious repression, “Turn It Off.”

Filling in the rest of the roles are what may be some of the hardest working ensemble members in the business. One of the underrated pleasures of the production must be the precision comedy choreography (courtesy of Casey Nicholaw), and the cast keeps the energy up and the sight gags flowing as tap-dancing missionaries, pantomime religious figures, beleaguered villagers, minions of Satan, or even Starbucks coffee cups. Nicholaw also codirected the production with Trey Parker, and their irreverent sensibility, Scott Pask’s scenic design, and Ann Roth’s costumes manage to make this coming-of-age comedy musical about religion feel textured and vibrant onstage.

Stone, Parker, and Lopez have crafted a tightly plotted, well-paced, wonderfully scored, and hilarious musical, fun for the general audience member and full of winks and references for the die-hard musical fan. The Orpheum makes a great venue for this production, large enough for the broad comedy and big production numbers yet small enough to maintain an intimate and guileless atmosphere. This perfectly reflects the youthful energy and inexperience that make this show so endearing. Somehow, this profanity-laden religious satire skirts the cynicism you might expect and ends up one of the more joyous and life-affirming shows you might see in a while.

Lydia Lunning