Generally speaking, I don’t like musicals. I can’t get enough of gritty stage dramas like “True West” or “Death of a Salesman,” and wry comedies such as “Seminar” or “Art” always deliver. I did have fun at “Victor/Victoria,” though that was mostly because I lucked into seats that were close enough to eyeball Broadway legend Julie Andrews’ mellifluous uvula. But when it comes to Broadway standbys like “Rent,” “Les Miserables,” or “A Chorus Line”—meh.
I expected to enjoy “The Book of Mormon,” if only because Trey Parker and Matt Stone (read our Q&A with them here) dreamed up the one musical I’ve always loved: the movie “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.” What I didn’t anticipate on opening night was a transcendent theatergoing experience.
Parker and Stone joined up with co-creator Robert Lopez, one of the minds behind the multiple Tony Award-winning “Avenue Q”—which I’m now officially dying to see—to create a masterwork unlike anything mainstream theater has ever encountered. “The Book of Mormon” takes all those extravagant, treacle-laced, and frankly, cheesy elements endemic to classic musicals and twists them into a distinctly modern, distinctly brilliant piece of joyful satire. Many times during the performance, my eyes welled up, as musicals beseech you to do, with tears of tender emotion—then spilled forth, with gasping hilarity, when the players kayoed us with (sung) punch lines that were filthy, shocking, and utterly hysterical.
Even though “South Park” fans have come to expect such creativity from these ardent devotees of story, never before have profanity and profundity been so conjugally entwined. Credit the impeccable and vibrant cast for thoroughly conveying the magic in the words of the three iconoclastic auteurs. The chemistry between Jared Gertner’s nerdy and lovable Elder Cunningham and Gavin Creel’s alpha-missionary Elder Price builds throughout, ultimately achieving a genuine and touching bond. From these two leads all the way through the chorus, the actors hit every note (whether sung or spoken) with pitch-perfectness, and the show’s unexpected delight was its astonishing range—in gestures from simple to grand—of riotous physical comedy. (The 21-year-old Grey Henson’s spiritually devoted but sexually conflicted Elder McKinley, in particular, scene-stole everything in this, his first—!—professional theater gig.)
Although the actual Book of Mormon could never convert me to religion, the “The Book of Mormon” may well have converted me to musicals. Either that, or the pure genius of this production has ruined them for me forever. Regardless, as the cast waved Parker and Stone (along with Lopez and director Casey Nicholaw) to the stage for a curtain call, the Denver crowd’s breathtaking roar said it all: Thank you, boys. And welcome home.
“The Book of Mormon” is playing at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House through September 2. The show is sold out, but the theater is holding a ticket lottery before each performance.
—Photo courtesy of Denver Center for the Performing Arts
Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad