- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The shock and gasps have come to the Kennedy Center. After wowing Broadway and making it the hottest ticket you couldn’t get, “Book of Mormon” is at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Aug. 16, and the touring production has brought along the humor, the songs, the dance and, yes, the offensiveness intact.

With book, music and lyrics by Robert Lopez in conjunction with “South Park” creators and agitators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, “Book of Mormon” follows the misadventures of a pair of missionaries, Elder Kevin Price (David Larsen) and Elder Arnold Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand) on a campaign to bring the good news of Joseph Smith to an African community. Kevin is more a straight-laced, by-the-“book” fellow whereas Arnold, a compulsive liar, goes off-script, often making up the tenets of Mormonism as he goes — to hilarious effect.

This being an effort from the “South Park” gang, it goes almost without saying that all “sacred” cows are slaughtered and no attempt at offense gone unclaimed. Perhaps that is, ultimately, the problem with “Book of Mormon.” In an age where shock value has lost much of its, well, value, Mr. Parker, Mr. Stone and Mr. Lopez truly go for broke in all manner of sexual and scatological gag, climaxing in Arnold’s presentation of his converts’ interpretation of Mormonism for the church hierarchy back in Utah — a description of which is all but unprintable here.

For all its attempts — and successes — at tastelessness, the play itself is, strangely, far more devoid of actual humor than one might expect. As in their animated forays, Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker often sacrifice laughter at the altar of distaste. Perhaps it was providential that the night before seeing the show at Kennedy, I watched Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” from 1968, a black comedy about a pair of scheming Broadway conmen out to stage a surefire flop, “Springtime for Hitler,” featuring a titular song of a bumbling Fuhrer and topped off with chorus girls marching in the swastika formation.

In poor taste, yes, both then and now, but unquestionably uproariously funny how the audience reacts first with jaws agape before the groovy-talking Hitler character wins them back and makes the show a success as a laugh-fest against the Fuhrer.

That said, the new production of “Book of Mormon” is unquestionably first-rate and succeeds admirably at all of its intentions. Directors Mr. Parker and Casey Nicholaw — who also served as choreographer — make full use of the Kennedy’s ample stage grounds, with glorious scenic designs by Scott Pask. Mr. Nicholaw’s dance numbers sing with a vivacity that belies the naughtiness of the lyrics. An Inferno set piece for the number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” takes Kevin on a jubilant romp through Satan’s playground, highlighted by perfectly nuanced red-and-orange lighting and just the right amount of special effects to make Hades come vividly to life for arguably the show’s best number.

Mr. Larsen and Mr. Strand both shine in the leads. Mr. Strand, especially takes Arthur’s endless fibbing to the nth degree, and his pudgy figure adds an extra dimension of tragicomedy to Arthur’s downward spiral into hedonistic heathenism.

One minor quibble is the sound could have been better mixed. Amid the laughter and the sound level of the chorus, specific jokes in the dialogue or lyrics often got lost in a somewhat muddled soundscape that, somehow, managed to get swallowed up by the Opera House.

Is “Book of Mormon” as offensive as you’ve heard? Yes, and then some. Is it as funny as it might be? No. Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker have been at their impish cartoons for two decades now, sometimes to the effect of outstanding satire — most notably in their film “Team America: World Police,” staged with puppets. But just as in their ongoing “South Park,” it is more about the gag than the joke — even to the point that Mormonism in the “South Park” universe is the one true religion and everyone else is in hell.

Arguably, the dogma of any religion could be funny when skewered properly, and Mormonism, for whatever reason, seems to be more conducive to being the butt of jokes in a culture where it is somehow still politically correct to do so. Maybe it’s because the Mormons are, well, just so damn nice as a people that taking their optimism and smiles through a travelogue of offense seemed like the optimal match for Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker’s off-color sensibilities.

The duo has proven over the years there is nowhere they will not go for a laugh, and so it is with “Book of Mormon,” which managed to touch the Zeitgeist and become a phenomenon — the ticket you could not get for less than the price of cross-country airfare. It has grown far beyond the Great White Way and now assaults the sensibilities of the capital, which is, unsurprisingly, eating it up.

As well it should. “Book of Mormon” is, without doubt, a competently written and executed show, and the Kennedy Center roadshow production offers District theatergoers a Broadway-level experience that is, comparatively, inexpensive. You will laugh, you will be offended, the songs never fail to entertain, and you will have many moments of “oh, they went there!”

But as a touchstone of American theater to be treasured and revived for decades, cynically, there may be a time when the gasp value of this show has exhausted its audience’s expectations — and patience.

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