REVIEW: Throwing the ‘Book’ at all of them


I’m still trying to figure out how “The Book of Mormon” ended up feeling so endearing and sentimental.

More often than not, the jokes are lewd and raunchy – there’s a gleeful string of f-bombs, graphic descriptions of bodily functions and raised middle fingers through both acts. What’s more, the barbs aimed squarely at the heart of the Mormon theology are consistent and sharp. The plausibility behind the religion gets torn apart again and again; the writers revel in pointing out the sheer silliness of magic underpants, Jesus’ trip to America before his resurrection and mysterious golden plates dug up by Joseph Smith in a New York backyard.

But by the time the curtains close on the musical penned by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” scribe Robert Lopez, there’s no sense of nastiness or excess. In the end, the story of two Mormon missionaries’ ill-fated trip to Uganda to convert the locals is more charming than shocking, despite all the gags about AIDs and spooky Mormon hell dreams. Rounds of graphic gags and bawdy lyrics are the groundwork for an underlying theme that’s even more shocking: Despite the underlying silliness of organized religion, the power and comfort of mythology and stories is something that’s undeniably human.

It’s an impressive theatrical feat, one that merits the media frenzy that’s surrounded the Denver premiere of a show that debuted only last year. Parker and Stone’s trademark brand of subversive humor finds a perfect complement in Lopez’s writing style and a laugh-out-loud score arranged by Stephen Oremus.

Part of that success stems from the skilled combination of classic Broadway conventions and shocking humor. The score boasts a refined knowledge of classic musical theater. Tunes like “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” “Baptize Me” and “I Believe” echo the sounds of well-worn Broadway chestnuts from “The Lion King” and “The King and I.”

The gags and the narrative offer a similar combination of old and new: References to Joseph Smith and the Church of Latter Day Saints meld seamless with pop culture references to “Star Wars” and the “Lord of the Rings.”

The show kicks off with some background on the Mormon religion. Behind the veil of a scrim, we see Joseph Smith digging up the golden plates that bear the words of the Book of Mormon, we see an illuminated Jesus visiting the Americas shortly before his crucifixion half a world away.
From there, the story centers on the journey of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two fresh missionaries ready to set off on their two-year mission. Elder Price (Gavin Creel) is the good-looking do-gooder, the Mormon who’s won the highest praise and best expectations. Meanwhile, Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner), is a socially awkward follower, a habitual liar looking for a best friend and a chance to excel.

Those roles get upturned after the pair is assigned to a mission in Uganda, despite Elder Cunningham’s most fervent wishes to travel to Orlando. The duo find that pestilence, disease and deprivation are the norm; their ideals of converting a spiritually thirsty populace get derailed by the harsh realities of constant war and poverty.

After befriending natives like Nabulungi (played with an impressive amount of spirit by Samantha Marie Ware) and her father Mafala Hatimbi (Kevin Mambo), the pair run afoul of the local warlord played by Derrick Williams.
From there, the duo’s roles begin to reverse. Elder Cunningham becomes disillusioned and unsure, doubt that leads to what may be the funniest dream sequence in the history of the theater (a vision of the underworld that unrolls to the strains of “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”). In his absence, Elder Cunningham is forced to win converts through his own imaginative brand of the gospel, an approach that incorporates mythology from “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.”

The resulting hilarious fallout includes a theatrical production by the villagers, a skewed version of the Mormon mythology that’s just as side-splittingly funny as it is uncomfortable. Again, the writers find their way to the basic theme of the power of storytelling through ridiculous situations and shocking humor. It’s a voyage that includes plenty of winces and mutterings of “I can’t believe they just went there,” but one that pays off in the form of big laughs and a surprising amount of heart.


“The Book of Mormon” will play at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts until Sept. 2. The show will return for an additional run at the Buell Theatre in October. While the majority of tickets for the upcoming run have been sold, the theater will conduct a lottery for $25 tickets for every show of the run. Information: or



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