‘The Book of Mormon’ snags your attention with raucous laughs

More often times than not, no matter how much you enjoy a stage show, there will be moments in the evening where your attention will wander because what’s on stage has lost its appeal… even for a second or two.
You’ll check your watch. You’ll watch the gentleman in front of you chew his gum. You’ll think of your agenda for work the next day. And so on.
However, “The Book of Mormon” now playing at The Bushnell in Hartford through Sunday is not one of those stage shows.
The musical from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had me laughing to the point of tears from start to finish when I caught it on March 19.
The musical is an irreverent look at a group of Mormon missionaries who find themselves in a less than hospitable place, Uganda. Along the way, they find out a little bit about themselves and their faith, they help the village they are serving find hope,
The show follows a couple of comic traditions, which helps pave the way for its success.
First off, there is the mismatched comic duo of the overachieving, devilishly handsome and charming Elder Price and the portly, bumbling, man-child Elder Price. The pairing was straight out of the Abbott and Costello and Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin school of partner comedy. The laughs in those classic pairings arose partly because of the disparate demeanors of the comic partners. The oil and water duo of “The Book of Mormon”— Mark Evans (Elder Price) and Christopher John O’Neill (Elder Cunningham)—have great chemistry. They play off each other well. And both actors are unafraid to be a little foolish for the sake of laughter.
Secondly, the show works because it lovingly pokes fun of its subject without being mean-spirited about it. There are so many opportunities for Stone and Parker to go for the “mean” when it comes to the Mormon religion. But they avoid that route. And in regards to the characters’ faith, they never ridicule the concept of faith. The creators recognize the importance of faith to these good-natured souls in their creation, even as Stone and Parker raise their eyebrows how people put their faith into practice.
Thirdly, no matter how noble the characters are, Parker and Stone are equal opportunists. Every character in the show has his/ her moment where we laugh at their actions or comments. Alexandra Ncube, who plays the kind-of love interest of Cunningham, Nabulungi, is probably the most noble character on stage. But she gets her share of laughter as she good-naturedly demonstrates her character’s inadvertent cluelessness.
The show also works because it’s clear Parker and Stone and Robert Lopez, who shared book, music, and lyric duties, know the Broadway composition form. The melodies and arrangements of “The Book of Mormon wouldn’t be out of place in a more staid production. But the lyrics that they wrap around the melodies are full of zingers, and slippery comical punctuations, which when they are unveiled in unexpected places elicit rip-roaring laughter.
Another blessing for “The Book of Mormon” was the choreography by Casey Nicholaw, which was brilliant. The vision of uniformly dressed Mormons offering up “A Chorus Line” worthy steps was a sight gag worthy of a Mel Brooks’s movie. And the choreography accompanying Price’s vision of hell reminded me of something straight out of a classic-era Alice Cooper concert.
The story by Parker and Stone also is unique for a Broadway show these days. It’s original. It may make knowing nods to its influences. But it is a work entirely on its own. In a Broadway universe that is addicted to stealing from movies or television or comic books, “The Book of Mormon” is a breath of fresh air.
This was definitely worth a night on the town. I give “The Book of Mormon” four out of four stars.
“The Book of Mormon” continues at The Bushnell through March 30 with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are Saturday at 2 p.m. and 1 p.m. on Sunday.
For more information, go to Bushnell.org