"Book of Mormon" at the Kennedy Center: Not Much Lost in Translation

Very little was lost during its transition from Broadway to the national tour, which opened at the Kennedy Center last week

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Joan Marcus, 2013

    After seeing "The Book of Mormon" for the third time, I believe.

    I believe very little was lost during its transition from Broadway to the national tour, which

    opened at the Kennedy Center last week

    . I believe I had to wipe tears of laughter from my eyes after almost every song. And I believe it is as good as both musicals and comedies get.

    "The Book of Mormon" won eight Tony Awards in 2011 for two main reasons. First and foremost, the sick minds behind "South Park" (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and "Avenue Q" (Robert Lopez) combined to create an obscene, boundary-pushing comedy tour-de-force.

    Second, but arguably more importantly, it tells a surprisingly coherent story with charm, insidiously catchy songs and universal themes that extend beyond the religious realm. Plus, everything is just so infectiously sincere you can't help but to go along with it.

    Elders Kevin Price (Mark Evans) and Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) are two sheltered, devout Mormon boys ready to embark on their required two-year evangelistic mission.

    The former is a Mormon stud with visions of doing "something incredible that blows God's freaking mind," and the latter a self-described loser with an aversion to truth ("I lie a lot!").

    Fate sends them to Uganda for their mission, where the locals have too many problems to worry about the teachings of two white boys. These are people who sing a "Hakuna Matata"-esque song about how much they hate God ("Hasa diga ebowai!").

    After seeing the conditions of this food-scarce, AIDS-stricken village, Elder Price goes through a crisis of faith while Elder Cunningham uses his special brand of persuasion to try to help his new African friends see the light.

    The songs, sets and gags are more or less unchanged from the original Broadway version. The Ugandan village looks appropriately run-down; its people hardened and cynical. What's stirring in them is not a desire to seek God. They just have maggots in where maggots should never, ever be.

    Evans has the daunting task of portraying a young man questioning everything he has ever been taught. Can he ever get to his personal paradise in Orlando on his current path? He does a great job of going from pompous to humble as he is shaken by the harshness of African life.

    Evans' voice is suitably strong, which is more impressive when you realize he has a naturally thick Welsh accent.

    O'Neill brings the funny in spades. He faces an interesting situation because he can actually carry a tune much better than Josh Gad, who originated the role on Broadway.

    The best part of Gad's Elder Cunningham was how his awkwardness carried over into his limited singing and dancing abilities. O'Neill's smoother vocals sometimes weaken his character's edge, but otherwise he mans up admirably as he goes from follower to super missionary.

    The rest of the ensemble is pitch perfect, with standout performances from Samantha Marie Ware as hopeful Nabalungi, who hopes religion can rescue her from her bleak life, and Grey Henson as the clearly closeted Elder McKinley, a master at turning off his feelings.

    Every song and dance number is sold with energy and enthusiasm. This makes the more outrageous numbers -- like the Ugandans bastardizing Mormon mythology in epic fashion in "Joseph Smith: American Moses" feel like they are there for more than just shock value.

    All the music, from Elder Price's show-stopping "I Believe" to Elder Cunningham and Nabalungi singing a sexy song about baptism ("I'm wet with salvation!"), masterfully blend humor and pathos. It doesn't get better than Elder Price's "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," the bizarre hell where all Mormon kids go when they are feeling especially guilty.

    But underneath all the elaborate production and laughs at the expense of Mormonism is a sweet message about the importance of faith. Beliefs are meant to be questioned and not followed blindly, but it's still important to believe in something.

    Even if you believe that the Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Missouri.

    It's because of this underlying theme that the play never comes off as mean-spirited toward its source material.

    "The Book of Mormon" never ceases to amaze with its comedy, music, production, and depth. The easily offended should stay far away, but anyone who appreciates high-quality, good-natured satire will be in for something incredible.

    "The Book of Mormon" is at The Kennedy Center through Aug. 18. Tickets are still available but selling fast.