Go forth, eastern Iowa, and baptize yourself in the ‘The Book of Mormon’

The Book of Mormon

Hancher Auditorium — through Sunday, Oct. 16

Photo courtesy of Book of Mormon
Photo courtesy of Book of Mormon

When I first heard that Trey Parker and Matt Stone had written a full-on Broadway musical, I was intrigued — and also a bit scared. I mean, I’ve seen Baseketball, so I know for a fact that not everything they touch is gold. Perhaps it was their third collaborator, Robert Lopez, composer and lyricist of Avenue Q fame, who kept them in check and held them to the standard I believe they’ve now set for irreverent comedic musicals. If so, I hope they never let him get away, because this show was pert near freaking perfect. The tone is wickedly funny. The script is clever and tightly constructed. And the social commentary is acerbic, poignant and timeless.

Book of Mormon follows Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two young Mormons, as they go on their two year missionary trip to recruit locals into the Mormon Church. “Locals where?” you might ask. Uganda. That’s where. This story gives us nearly three hours (though it flies by) of absolutely laugh-out-loud, shake-your-head, tears-coming-out-of-your-eyes hilarity. And while I think it would be funny in any company’s hands, the production team that has mounted this show at Hancher, directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, has done so with such professionalism and creative verve that it elevated the play beyond simply funny to a place of true satire.

By treating the Mormons in the play as lovable and honorable, despite their ignorance, and the African characters as intelligent and relatable, despite their circumstances, they managed to call out social hypocrisies and examine our participation in them with nuance and delicacy. That nuance and delicacy was couched in some of the most crass, uncouth and politically incorrect subject matter imaginable — poking fun at female genital mutilation, the rape of infants, AIDS and genocide. But the cast, having possibly the best comedic timing I’ve ever seen, made conversations on these topics feel fun and good-natured. This is a testament to the talent on display in this show.

Elder Price, a golden-boy type, was played to perfection by Ryan Bondy, a powerhouse singer with the comedic chops of Jim Carrey. He was brilliantly complemented by Cody Jamison Strand as Elder Cunningham, who was able to be annoying, charming, bad-ass and sinfully guilty at the drop of a hat. Whether it was a high pitched squeal of delight or a growl-y rock riff worthy of Lars Ulrich, Strand’s flexibility and full immersion in the role, coupled with Bondy’s expressive face and full-bodied comedy, made them a lovable odd-couple.

Candace Quarrels as Nabulungi blew me away multiple times. Her sweet voice floated across notes most people couldn’t touch in their dizziest daydreams, and she added power and a kind of raw edge to moments in this show that could have been trite — most notably in the “Hasa Diga Eebowai” reprise, which could have been a forgettable exposition moment pushing the story towards its inevitable conclusion. Instead, her pain felt real and crushing, and it lent weight and importance to the story, which, in the second act, did start feel a little formulaic.

The ensemble here was absolutely on point. It felt like they’d never rehearsed the show; rather, they were born knowing each note and step. The timing of each moment just seemed perfect. Nothing was wasted, no transition left bland. I could easily write an entire review about each actor and their contribution to this stunning performance but alas, I have word count to adhere to.

The scenic design, music and choreography were intricate and beautifully executed. The fact that the choreographer, Nicholaw, was also credited as a director makes perfect sense given the absolute precision of each transition. The costumes, especially in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” were gorgeous and excellently conceived. All the elements came into place and really gave the entire show an almost cinematic feel.

I could really go on and on. But let me leave you with this. If you can see this show, and you don’t, you’re a fool. The Book of Mormon runs through this Sunday, Oct. 16 at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.

Remaining shows are Friday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 16 at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $60-135; a lottery is also available, where names are selected two hours before curtain for up to two $25 tickets. The lottery is limited to one entry per person, and winners must be present at the time of the drawing, and able to provide valid ID.

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