“The Book of Mormon” made history last month by surpassing the original Broadway production of “42nd Street,” as the 14th longest-running Broadway show in history.
The clever and outrageous musical comedy will return to the Schuster Center Aug. 28-Sept. 1 as part of the Victoria Theatre Projects Unlimited Star Attraction series.
Ty Sutton, the VTA’s president and CEO, says “The Book of Mormon” is still one of the best-selling titles on Broadway — and all over the country. “It did very well here in Dayton the first time it played the Schuster Center in 2015,” he says. “Patrons had been asking for us to bring it back and when the opportunity presented itself, we snapped it up.”
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker and featuring a book and score by Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, the show previewed on Broadway in 2011 and went on to win nine Tony awards including “Best Musical.” Parker and Stone are best known for creating the animated television series “South Park.” Lopez wrote the music for the popular Broadway musical “Avenue Q.”
In addition to being edgy and raunchy, “Mormon” is an old-fashioned Broadway musical — the kind of show where you go out humming the tunes. Popular songs include the opening “Hello” (the doorbell tune), “Two by Two,” “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” “I Believe,” “I Am Africa” and “Baptize Me.”
The plot focuses on two very different Mormon missionaries —the talented and eager Elder Price and the nerdy Elder Cunningham — who are paired and sent to Uganda to perform their two-year mission in a remote village. They soon realize the natives are more concerned about issues such as AIDS, famine, female genital mutilation and oppression from the village warlords.
Cleveland native portrays Elder Cunningham
Playing Elder Cunningham is Jordan Matthew Brown, who had his eye on the part since he first saw the musical when it came to his native Cleveland. He’d grown up compulsively watching “Wizard of Oz” and listening to Sondheim.
By the time Brown graduated from college he’d already been invited to join the national tour as a standby for the part he coveted. “Typically when you see a sidekick character —the funny friend —that character doesn’t get a complete journey,” Brown said. “But this character goes through a full spectrum of emotions and also has some of the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen.”
Before returning to the national tour in April as Elder Cunningham, Brown spent a year on Broadway as a standby where he was given the opportunity to play Elder Cunningham a number of times on the New York stage. “The first time I got to play it I found out in the morning and my family and friends flew in from Cleveland as fast as they could to see it!” he recalls.
What critics say
When it first opened on Broadway, critics raved about the show with Ben Brantley of “The New York Times” labeling it the “Best Musical of the Century.” Adjudicators in town recently for FutureFest, the festival of new plays hosted by the Dayton Playhouse, also said they’d liked it immediately.
“I thought it was one of the funniest shows ever seen on Broadway,” said David Finkle. a member of the New York Drama Critics Circle who writes regularly about theater and the arts online at “New York Stage Review” and “The Clyde Fitch Report. “It’s hilariously funny and a profound statement about religion. It shows what happens when two strong cultures collide. It asks us to think about how religions start and how authentic the impetus is behind them.”
“I thought it was going to be cynical, but it’s really a human story where you care about the characters,” said FutureFest adjudicator Helen Sneed. “It’s hard to sustain a spoof, and it’s much more than that. The best musicals remain entrenched in those basic components of a classic Broadway musical comedy, but with this one there’s an overlay of hilarious originality.”
Jordan Brown says those who don’t really know the show wonder if it’s simply raunchy and offensive. “Yes, it has those elements, but it also has beautiful heart underneath that. It’s smart and funny and pushes boundaries but it’s really a story of friendship. I see it as a celebration of religion; it tells you that you can believe what you believe. Mormons have come to the stage door after the show and us that the point of comedy is to laugh at the things that make us different as well as the things that bring us together. That’s what this show does.”
What do Mormons think?
Rick Valencia, who serves as one of two volunteer Stake Presidents in the Dayton area, said he has avoided seeing the musical because of its crude language and offensive content.
“It makes fun of our missionaries and our church, and religion in general,” he said. “But is also opens up dialogue for a discussion about what we really do believe. For example, yesterday I was speaking with a young professional Mormon couple and we were talking about the ‘Book of Mormon’ coming back to Dayton again. Both of them shared with me conversations they’d had with co-workers who’d engaged them in conversation about our church because of the musical. For us any news is good news, even if it’s not accurate or flattering.”
Valencia says while the musical production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, “The Book of Mormon” as a volume of scripture can change people’s lives by bringing them closer to Jesus Christ. His religion has taken a positive approach to the play, sponsoring ads in playbills that suggest “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”
Valencia explains that the members of his church were given the nickname “Mormons” after the initial publication of The Book of Mormon in 1830. The official name, which is currently preferred, is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
“I think most people understand that musical is not an accurate portrayal of what Mormons believe and do,” concludes Valencia. “We encourage those who would like to know more about Mormons to attend local church meetings, where visitors are always welcome.”
Says Jordan Brown: “We’re hoping we’ll be able to bring some laughter and joy to Dayton.”
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