I drove up to Denver's Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Sunday convinced there was no way The Book of Mormon could live up to the hype.
I mean, the show won nine — count 'em, nine — Tony Awards. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it the best musical of the century. (Sure, it's a young century, but still.) Tickets for the Broadway production are such a hot item that premium seats are going for $500 a pop — not on the street, but at the box office. And when tickets for the National Tour's stop in Denver went on sale in January, the entire three-week run sold out in less than five hours.
Well, believe the hype. This show is ridiculously good.
And it accomplished something a lot of people thought was impossible. It made Broadway cool again.
The Book of Mormon is the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, University of Colorado grads who first rose to fame as the creators of the animated sitcom South Park. (The fact that both of them grew up in Colorado was one big reason they chose Denver as the launchpad for the tour.)
But they couldn't have done it alone. Robert Lopez, the man who helped make the musical Avenue Q such a huge hit nine years ago, added Broadway savvy and his own edgy brand of comedy to the mix.
It was, as it turned out, a match made on Kolob.
The story focuses on a pair of young Mormons about to set out on their first mission. Elder Price is the slick one, a supremely confident young man with perfectly coiffed hair and an Aqua-Fresh smile who lives his life as though God is his own personal Santa Claus, dispensing an endless supply of rewards for his model behavior. Elder Cunningham is the geeky one, a cackling, overweight schlub who lies under stress and instantly latches onto Elder Price as his last best chance for a friend.
While their fellow missionaries are assigned to comfortably exotic locations like Norway or France, Elder Price is convinced that he and his newfound partner will be sent to the most wonderful place in the world, Orlando. Instead, they're sent to Uganda.
"Cool!" Elder Cunningham says. "Like Lion King!"
They soon realize, however, that the Ugandan village where they end up is nothing like a Disney movie. Animal carcasses rot in the streets, 80 percent of the people have AIDS, and an evil warlord with an unprintable name is on his way to kill the men and mutilate the women. In recognition of their plight, the villagers greet their new visitors with a song that in unexpurgated, four-letter glory expresses what they think of God.
That's exactly the kind of thing you'd expect from the Bad Boys of Broadway. What you might not expect is how sympathetically, even positively, the Mormons are portrayed.
Sure, some of their beliefs seem weird. The song "Turn It Off" is a sequin-covered, tap-dancing send-up of the Mormon practice of shutting down uncomfortable feelings (led by the deeply closeted Elder McKinley). And "I Believe," which is nothing more than a listing of some of the more unconventional doctrines of the Mormon church, is one of the funniest songs in the show.
But when you get right down to it, the creators seem to say, the Mormons do a fair amount of good. And they're just so gosh darn nice while they're doing it.
Jared Gertner threatens to steal every scene as Elder Cunningham, whose "creative" reading of the Book of Mormon holds the key to winning over the villagers. But Gavin Creel, a respected Broadway veteran who played Claude in the 2009 revival of Hair, more than holds his own, making Elder Price's journey from shallow pretty boy to rock-hard man of faith not just funny but believable.
Also worth noting is Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi, the African girl with whom Elder Cunningham falls in love. She brings a surprising tenderness to "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," an ode to that heavenly Utah city. And yet, when she and Gertner share vocal duties in "Baptize Me," a song loaded with clever double entendres, she proves that she can get down and dirty, too.
In an age when most mainstream movies and TV shows avoid religious issues like the plague, it's refreshing — and pretty much unbelievable — that two self-professed atheists would advance one of the strongest, most practical defenses of religion in a long time.
That it comes wrapped up in such a hilariously obscene package only adds to the charm.
The Book of Mormon
Through Sept. 2, Tuesdays through Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. (see website for special performance times). Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 1101 13th St., Denver. Tickets are sold out, but 24 will be available via lottery for each show for $25. See denvercenter.org for information.