SCRANTON — The crowd reaction in the Scranton Cultural Center Wednesday was a playfully fun mixture of quiet shock and uproarious laughter as “The Book of Mormon,” a boldly hilarious and somewhat controversial Tony Award-winning play took stage. On the second night of a six day, eight show residency on North Washington Avenue, the production brought Broadway quality theater to Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Conceived by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the lauded creators of the hit animated series “South Park,” and co-written by Broadway veteran Robert Lopez, the comedy kept show-goers thoroughly entertained whether they were gasping under their breath or letting their sense of humor take over and belly-laughing.
The opening song of the humorous musical brought a group of Mormon “elders” on stage to sing “Hello!,” an introduction to a group of soon-to-be missionaries as they attempt to spread their spirituality by going door to door. An orchestra of door bells provided creative instrumentation as the crowd was broken in to the clever lampooning of the more ridiculous elements of religious practice, which would escalate throughout the show and include quips about Catholicism and Judaism as well as of the Mormon faith.
David Larsen and Cody Jamison Strand were radiant as the male leads, Elder Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham. The two were introduced as unlikely partners on a mission to Uganda. The odd-couple pairing of Price, the Mormon golden boy whose faith is tested, and Cunningham, the lovable but slightly abrasive loner on a search for true friendship, brings a convincing on-stage dynamic to the play.
Upon arriving in Africa, the duo quickly realizes the challenge of trying to baptize villagers surrounded by hunger, disease and death under the rule of a warmongering general, played by David Aron Damane, who has a penchant for killing in the nude and mutilating women.
Price and Cunningham are shocked when the villagers, led by Mafala, played by James Vincent Meredith, break into the song “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which translates to a not-so-Mormon gesture toward God as a way of coping with the tragedy in their lives.
This show highlight was well received by the audience. Even with its slew of vulgarity, the lyricism painted a logical picture of how people who deal with so much pain and misery could lose faith and how finding that faith might be the furthest thing from their minds. Laughter during the tune was as pervasive as the applause that followed.
Things get worse for the main characters as they encounter fellow missionaries who have registered zero baptisms and have developed a dismissive way of burying their issues, including notions of abuse, guilt and struggling with sexuality, which they display in the tune “Turn It Off.”
Sticking to his mission, Price reaches out to the Ugandan villagers, elaborating on the significance of faith in the satirical but poignant song “All-American Prophet” and captures the attention of Mafala’s hopeful, yet naive, daughter, Nabulungi, played by Candace Quarrels.
In a funny turn of events, Nabulungi becomes convinced that Salt Lake City, Utah is a paradise, and she convinces her fellow villagers to listen to the missionaries.
In the meantime, Price sees the evil warlord shoot a villager in the head and his faith is shaken. He convinces himself he belongs elsewhere, namely Orlando, and he all but gives up on his mission to help the Ugandans, hurting Cunningham’s feelings during his breakdown.
As Price prepares to flee, Nabulungi catches up with Cunningham and convinces him to take the lead on converting villagers to Mormonism. Cunningham, whom Strand plays with a seemingly unquenchable enthusiasm, finds his confidence in the rock and roll song “Man Up” and decides to try his best, although his best includes a tendency to exaggerate the truth.
What results is a group of villagers who know the history of Mormonism that includes a bevy of references to “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings,” two of Cunningham’s favorite trilogies.
As Cunningham succeeds in recruiting fellow Mormons by tailoring his story to their needs, Price comes back to the village after having a dream that he’s gone to Hell because of his lack of faith.
One of the best examples of innuendo in the production sees Cunningham and Nabulungi take the stage to perform “Baptize Me,” which plays on the notion of two young people “doing it” for the first time.
After surviving an abusive experience with the general, Price finds his faith and reconciles with Cunningham, whom he realizes is just the man for the job in Uganda, even though the villagers present the Mormon chapter president with a presentation on Mormon history that includes Cunningham’s indiscretions in storytelling.
The final ensemble song, “Tomorrow Is A Latter Day,” sees the message of the play driven home as the cast addresses the importance of ignoring the absurd and often insignificant rules and dogmas that separate people in favor of adopting a philosophy of treating each other well to make tomorrow a better “latter” day.
The audience rose to its feet quickly for a unanimous standing ovation.
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or [email protected]