“Book of Mormon” Musical Brings Hilarity, Controversy to Salt Lake


Having dinner in a fancy restaurant is as much about the ambience as it is the actual menu. In many ways the same can be said for Broadway musicals; sure, it may be a thrill to see “Les Miserable” but what about seeing it in Paris? Imagine seeing “Oklahoma” in Oklahoma City or, even better, seeing “Wicked” in the magical Land of Oz. While the latter may not be possible, there was certainly magic in the air when the Tony-award-winning “The Book of Mormon” made its stage debut in the Mormon stronghold of Salt Lake City.

The incredibly popular musical made its Broadway debut back in March 2011 to almost universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike, and nearly four years and nine Tony awards later, the show finally made its long-awaited debut in Salt Lake City. The musical is famous for its satirical skewering of the Mormon faith and what better place to deliver its unique brand of humor and music than just a few blocks away from Temple Square? It’s not often that an audience will cheer wildly at the opening of a musical but that was exactly the case at Capitol Theatre when the curtain rose for “The Book of Mormon” to the delight of a very diverse and exuberant crowd.

From the very beginning, when an effeminate-speaking Jesus Christ lights up in sparkling, neon glory, the style of producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who also created “South Park,” is on full display. The dynamic duo have made a career of crude yet hilarious satire without worrying about who they may offend, and their recipe for success is evident in “The Book of Mormon”.

From a clever twist on “Hakuna Matata” with the song “”Hasa Diga Eebowai”, which due to content can’t be translated in print, to a particularly South Park-esque scene where a group of Ugandans use frog fornication and pantomime of mass defecation to retell the story of the origin of the Mormon faith, the influence of Parker and Stone is indelibly stamped all over the musical.

Depending on one’s perspective, “The Book of Mormon” is a delicious serving of spot-on satire or an incredibly offensive barrage on a topic that is sacred to many. What can’t be denied, however, is the fact the musical is incredibly funny and at times borderline brilliant in both its humor and its catchy, toe-tapping songs that even the most die-hard Mormon won’t be able to resist singing along with. Then again, it’s a wildly offensive, gloves off, comedic beat-down of a religion that has recently taken more than its fair share of shots in the national spotlight.

Part of what makes “The Book of Mormon” so irresistibly funny is that the producers of the show have clearly done their research on the Mormon faith and its unique culture. While there are a few inaccuracies, like that the Mormons danced with Ewoks upon arriving in the Salt Lake Valley or that the angel Moroni descended from the Starship Enterprise, many of the references to the Mormon religion and culture are spot-on and hilarious, especially to those who are familiar with the faith. Even practicing Mormons, specifically those who have served missions themselves, will appreciate the at times contentious but ultimately good-natured interplay between Elder Price, played by Billy Harrigan Tighe, and Elder Cunningham, played by A.J. Holmes.

All perceptions about religion and Mormons aside, the truth of the matter is that “The Book of Mormon” at its heart is centered on catchy musical numbers that are as entertaining as they are offensive. It’s hard not to be entertained by the musical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” which will hilariously and horrifically spook even the most wayward individual to the straight and narrow. Who wouldn’t be entertained by the less-than-forthright retelling of Mormon history in “Making Things Up Again” which includes appearances by not only Joseph Smith and Moroni but a few Hobbits as well?

Perhaps the real reason for the packed house at Capitol Theatre was not so much about the musical itself but the fact Salt Lake City is finally given its due credit in the song “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” in which our fair city is referred to as paradise and the most perfect place on earth. There aren’t many opportunities to hear some of the best voices of Broadway sing about the merits of living in Salt Lake City, which makes seeing “The Book of Mormon” worth the price of admission for that alone. Then again you might want to take it tongue-in-cheek; as one Ugandan villager puts it in the play, “Salt Lake City is an idea, a metaphor,” which essentially sums up the entire point of a musical that is not meant to offend but to simply entertain. In that regard “The Book of Mormon” is a rousing success.

a.clark @chronicle.utah.edu