An old boyfriend once grabbed me by the arm, dragged me to a computer, and clicked on a crudely animated, just-released video called “The Spirit of Christmas.” I’m not sure which was more revelatory, watching a scene of Jesus and Santa fight Mortal Kombat style, or watching the then-love-of-my-life collapse with laughter over it. “Look, Jesus and Santa are killing people!” Sixteen years later, I heard that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators behind this cartoon and subsequent animated series (which got away with rarely animating feet or hands or people who weren’t talking) had created a real. live. musical.
Not only was it highly animated, it was unsurprisingly offensive, and surprisingly pro-faith, if not joyfully so. Quick summary: two mismatched Mormon elders embark on their two-year mission and find themselves completely out of their comfort zone in a remote village in northern Uganda where hurling the f-bomb at God is as common as AIDS, starvation, and tribal warfare. In short, The Book of Mormon was totally wrong, but in all the right ways. (The Tonys agreed.) How does that work?
“[The creators have] written all of these songs that they know are naturally comforting to audience members,” said lead actor Kevin Clay (Elder Price), discussing the various musical knockoffs and easter eggs sprinkled throughout the score. “You as an audience member go, ‘Oh I like this groove. I like the melody.’ And then all of the sudden they throw some of that fun shock value at you. That puts the audience in a very comfortable and uncomfortable position all at the same time, which then forces you to think.”
Even with lots of thinking, it can be difficult to articulate exactly what is so funny about a musical with running gags about bestiality and maggot-infested genitalia.
“It kind of blows me away sometimes, because it’s this perfect storm of pushing the limits and still somehow making it acceptable that I don’t even quite understand,” says Kayla Pecchioni, who plays Nabalungi, the daughter of the village chief. “We obviously fully believe in it. Sometimes you do get a moment of ‘Are people still on our side?’ And luckily, more often than I would even think, people just eat it up.”
The Book of Mormon paints everyone, the oppressed, the oppressors, and the ultra-religious, with a broad, stereotypical brush. But the real joke seems to be on people who’ve bought into those stereotypes a bit too hard—people who automatically picture The Lion King when they think of Africa, or who think the only goal of Mormonism is to get a planet. Which is a lot of us to a certain extent. (Can you find Uganda on a map? Or name the current Mormon President?)
Although you might know little about Mormonism, you shouldn’t assume the performers don’t either. In college, Clay was approached by Mormon missionaries who offered him a copy of The Book of Mormon (the navy blue book with gold letters). And Clay accepted.
“I was going through a time when I was reading all sorts of different religious texts. So I actually read most of it,” he explained. “It’s fascinating to me—reading any sort of religious piece. It’s kind of what this show is about. You can find either the ridiculous side of it, or you can find the truth underneath all of it.”
Do people still freak out and leave? Well, yes.
“It is unfortunate when we do see people walk out, or if someone does react in a negative way because it’s just such a good message at the end of the day,” said Pecchioni, who has been successful in encouraging on-the-fence friends and family to stick out the show until the end. “You just have to stay and watch it. You have to open up your mind a bit and be open to hearing some things that are hard to hear to get around to the real heart and the true meaning of the story.”
And sometimes the cast gets their own stereotypes adjusted.
“It’s amazing to get people you don’t expect at all to like it…having some 90-year-old woman come up to us and say that she hasn’t laughed that hard in years,” said Clay. “You forget that people from every walk of life, every background, have the ability to get things the same way that you do.”
The Book of Mormon
Ohio Theatre (39 E State St.)