Theater review: ‘Book of Mormon’ remains deeply offensive, highly hilarious

Before “Hamilton” and after “Wicked,” there was “Book of Mormon:” the much-talked-about musical so hot on Broadway and on tour that obtaining tickets meant you either had connections or an excellent credit score.

What do a hip-hop historical pageant, a fantasy spin on a classic novel-turned-beloved movie and an irreverent riff on a religion practiced by 16 million people worldwide have in common, apart from their impressive box office receipts? All of them felt like a revelation when first viewed by audiences. But all of them, at base, are actually pretty old fashioned.

In some ways, “Mormon” – settling into a two-week run at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre — is the most conventional of the trio. Sure, it’s wrapped up in an R-rated package, but the story (a couple of unlikely buddies who find themselves fish out of water … or in this case, Salt Lake City) is a familiar one.

The lively score is largely a pastiche satirizing predecessors like “The Lion King” (“Hasa Diga Eebowai” =  “Hakuna Matata”),  “Little Shop of Horrors” (“Sal Tlay Ka Siti” = “Somewhere That’s Green”) and, yes, “Wicked” (“You and Me (But Mostly Me)” = “Defying Gravity”).

And the script — a good 50 percent of which is words and phrases you can’t quote in the newspaper — brims with nerd-world references and pop culture asides (that are, frankly, growing a bit stale with age) engineered to leverage shock and awesome laughter.

But where “Hamilton” engaged us with a new perspective on our national birth story and “Wicked” dazzled us by expanding on a tale we thought we knew, “Mormon” has but a single objective: It wants us to laugh, and will achieve those ends by any means necessary.

If that means plunking a cocky young missionary and his hapless companion down in Uganda, so be it. If it involves throwing sharp-elbowed-but-still-somehow affectionate jabs at Mormons, homosexuals, Broadway musicals, Jesus Christ and the entire African continent … well, so it goes. And if requires likening infamous OJ Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran to Hitler and Genghis Khan, well … “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” had to have one more antagonist, I guess.

The touring production playing Minneapolis is a conspicuously sharp and spirited one. The company trounces through Casey Nicholaw’s gaily goofy choreography like it’s had two espressos too many (impossible, of course, since Mormons don’t consume caffeine).

Conner Peirson, playing the blundering Elder Arnold Cunningham, is a bigger guy who moves with a liquid, dance-like-no-one’s watching ease. Peirson has the wide-open, guileless expressions of a little kid and the work ethic of a salmon vaulting a waterfall. Watching him rock through the testosterone-laced “Man Up,” he looks for all the world like a cross between Meat Loaf and Chris Farley from that old “Saturday Night Live” Chippendales sketch.

Kevin Clay is a few degrees less successful as the over-achieving Elder Kevin Price, with square-jawed good looks sanded down by his passing resemblance to Howdy Doody. Clay’s Price overflows with solicitous certitude, but his vocal instrument leaves something to be desired: His rendition of the triumphant second-act anthem “I Believe” was somewhat thin.

By contrast, Kayla Pecchioni brings a gigantic voice (and a 12-megawatt smile) to the role of the young Ugandan woman who finds hope in the Mormon message. The character’s name is Nabulungi, but in one of the show’s many running jokes, Arnold refers to her variously as Noxzema, Nabisco and Nicki Minaj.

Sorry. Did that strike you as politically incorrect or problematic? If so, “Book of Mormon” is, for sure, not the show for you. If you’re willing to go along, though, it’s a heckuva ride.

‘Book of Mormon’ at Orpheum Theatre

  • What: “Book of Mormon”
  • When: Through Nov. 18
  • Where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis
  • Tickets: $155-$29; 800-982-2787 or HennepinTheatreTrust.org
  • Capsule: Open the door. Invite them in.

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