“The Book of Mormon,” the most successful musical of the 2010’s, opened on Broadway in March 2011 to rave reviews, and has since captivated audiences nationwide with its perfect mockery of the only all-American religion and its wildly elaborate musical numbers.
Produced by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park,” and Robert Lopez, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Avenue Q,” another fowl-mouthed, satirical and highly successful musical, “Book of Mormon” is easily the funniest musical since “The Producers.” The original Broadway production won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and is currently on its second national tour, playing at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts until Sunday.
The story begins in ancient Upstate New York, with Mormonism founder Joseph Smith’s discovery of the “golden plates,” and quickly flashes forward to present day. We meet Elder Price, a charismatic 19-year-old Mormon excited to depart on his two-year mission and eager to convert every person he encounters. Hoping to be sent to Orlando, Florida for his mission, Price is disappointed after being paired with the much chubbier and less competent Elder Cunningham and being sent to Uganda for his mission instead. Still, he remains hopeful. Hilarity ensues when the two missionaries arrive in Uganda and are horrified to discover that the natives are far more concerned with social issues such as AIDS and female circumcision than religion.
Upon arrival in Uganda, many of the native people seem skeptical of these new LDS visitors – all except Nabulungi, the daughter of community leader Mafala Hatimbi. Nabulungi is one of the few who believes in the peace and earthly paradise that Elder Price can’t stop talking about. Played by Denee Benton, Nabulungi sings a beautiful rendition of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” where her powerful and amazing voice describes everything she hopes to see and discover in her idea of the promise land – Salt Lake City. What is especially impressive about Benton is that she is only 22 years old and is currently finishing up her B.F.A. in musical theater at Carnegie Mellon University. Benton joined “The Book of Mormon” company for a month in San Francisco and then moved on to a 16-week run in Los Angeles, both of which will give her school credit and help in completing her degree requirements.
David Larsen plays the charming Elder Price and brings so much talent, charm and entertainment to the role. As an Oregon native, Larsen also completed a B.F.A. in drama from Carnegie Mellon University and has held parts in several shows such as “American Idiot” and “Billy Elliot.” Larsen’s perfect smile and crisp, sharp voice make him a very believable Mormon missionary, and audience members can relate to his songs of self-discovery and happiness.
Although a title like “The Book of Mormon” may imply that it only appeals to a select group of people, this musical has something to offer for everyone, regardless of backgrounds or beliefs. Musical theater fans will appreciate the traditional musical format of the show, as well as the clever songs and well-executed tap dancing. Even viewers who do not have a background in musical theater will be entertained by the story and will find something to resonate with from the show’s many underlying themes.
For UCI alumnus Anthony Chatmon, who graduated in 2012 with a B.F.A. in Musical Theater, and plays “Doctor” in this production, the show’s wide-ranging appeal is one of its most enjoyable features.
“South Park fans aren’t necessarily theater fans but they love” Book of Mormon,” Chatmon, 24, said. “I know regardless of who you are, you’re gonna like the show!”
After graduating from UCI, Chatmon moved to New York City to pursue musical theater professionally and auditioned for several musicals, including “Mormon.” For his audition, Chatmon coincidentally sang “I Believe” one of Elder Price’s songs, which Andrew Rannells, who originated the role and currently plays Elijah on HBO’s “Girls,” performed at the 2011 Tony Awards. Chatmon’s casting in “Mormon” was thus meant to be.
“All the cast members love to pick on me for it” said Chatmon.
Originally from Cerritos, Chatmon frequently saw shows at the Segerstrom Center growing up and is grateful to be performing there as an adult. He joined the “Mormon” tour in Los Angeles, where the show played at the Pantages Theater prior to its opening performance in Orange County last Tuesday.
Chatmon feels that his training at UCI prepared him well for the real world of musical theater.
“We were taught to be strong actors and to really be creative and act outside of the box,” Chatmon reflected. “I didn’t think I was going to get to this kind of show so quickly.”
For a musical that takes crass humor at the expense of a religious sect as its focus, “Book of Mormon” also has a lot of heart. Viewers young and old can easily relate to the feelings of being determined to passionately fight for what you believe in and define yourself in the process. With great clarity and a decent amount of snark, Mafala and his fellow villagers explore the absurdity of “civilizing” another group of people, especially through the dubious goals of religious missions. But irreverence aside, themes of self discovery, demonstrated through the character arcs of both Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who each experience personal growth through their experiences in Africa, are prevalent throughout the musical.
“Book of Mormon” will be playing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts until Sunday, and though tickets are almost entirely sold out for every performance, students can enter a lottery for a chance to win tickets for $25 each. “Book of Mormon” is hilarious from start to finish and with relatable themes of self discovery and questioning faith, it is one of the best musicals of the past decade.