Waiting in the lobby for the house to open Sunday night at the Denver Center's Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the people-watching was an excellent pre-show diversion. Was this a Green Day show we were queuing up for, or the theater?
In the case of "The Book of Mormon," the Broadway smash now on tour from South Park duo Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the answer is a little bit of both. That kid in the T-shirt and skate shoes standing near the elegant woman in a close-fitting dress may not be together, but they were there at the Ellie for the official opening of "The Book of Mormon" because they shared one critical thing the show was sure to deliver: laughter. And what the creators of the show have done is make something that appeals to a wide audience - and god knows the theater could use some youthful mojo to break up the older crowds that comprise most audiences nowadays.
With a sold-out house (and many more to come through its closing in Denver Sept. 2), "The Book of Mormon" goes from 0-60 in the opening seconds and never, ever lets up. While many musicals have a handful of big, catchy numbers to hang the rest of the show on, "Mormon" seems to have been created to be a greatest hits of itself. The cast had the audience in the palm of its hand from the get-go - from the excitement promoted by the cellphones-off announcement to the curtain call, where Parker and Stone themselves came out for a bow. Perhaps it was the years of anticipation after it was announced Denver would be the first city to host the touring production; maybe it's the expectation "South Park" fans have that everything Parker and Stone touch is crude, comic gold - but mostly it boiled down to the simple observation that this is one hell of a show that just seems to do it all well.
With "Avenue Q" creator Robert Lopez joining Parker and Stone to create the book and music, "The Book of Mormon" sets out on a relatively simple mission: to be an old-school, big production musical - but with a decidedly modern and, yes, filthy take. It's impossible to talk about this show without noting the 15 seasons of "South Park" that influence its content. Religion has always held a strong fascination for Parker and Stone, and when it comes to picking a religion to have a little fun with, no offense Mitt Romeny, but it's tough to beat Mormonism. But while "South Park" is entirely minimalistic, here the writers got a chance not only to deploy the full Broadway musical treatment but also cast off the shackles of TV censors and MPAA ratings. It's "South Park," completely uncut and, yes, the musical.
Within 15 minutes of the start of the show, we know the story: Two young Mormons - Kevin and Arnold, aka Elder Price and Elder Cunningham - are off to Uganda, there to spread the word of their faith and encourage the embracing of this most amazing book - The Book of Mormon. Price (a fabulous Gavin Creel) is the Mormon wunderkind - the sort of youthful missionary bound to make his mark, and although his first choice was to go to Orlando, he swallows his disappointment and ships off to Africa with Cunningham (an equally remarkable Jared Gertner). Alas, Elder Cunningham is more like the Mormon school dropout who's just doing what his parents command. Overweight, insecure and largely ignorant of what The Book of Mormon actually contains, Arnold is simply hoping to be sidekick to Kevin.
But even dutiful Elder Price can't reconcile the awful reality of the Ugandan village where they end up. Their first image is of a dead donkey being drug across the stage, and within seconds their relieved of their luggage by local thugs. By the time they join up with the other members of the mission, they've had a quick, bombastic immersion in local issues ranging from AIDS, rape, female genital mutilation - and the maggots that dwell in one villager's nether regions.
So much for Kevin's sunny disposition and big dreams of quickly getting the locals baptized. We soon learn the beautiful Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware) and her father Mafala Hatimbi (Kevin Mambo), live in mortal fear of the local "general," whose evil is deep and whose very name cannot be printed in a family newspaper. Can Mormonism save them? It may sound ridiculous, but as the young Elders know, you've just gotta believe.
The action is punctuated by a number of masterfully done historic scenes from The Book of Mormon. Here's Joseph Smith digging up the magical golden plates in Upstate New York that contain the words to the sacred book. Jesus appears, his robe a glow and his hair a-flowing, as do Mormon himself and Brigham Young. There may be plenty of perceived flings at Mormonism, but the biggest laughs come from simply taking what's really in there and presenting it for consideration. Every Mormon gets his own planet in the afterlife? Great! Joseph Smith never showed anyone the golden plates and simply transcribed the whole thing onto regular paper? OK.
"The Book of Mormon" isn't perfect - some of the pop culture references are overdone; do we really need another Yoda joke? - but it's pretty darn close. If you're willing to set aside any inner Church Lady who might be lurking within, it's simply not to be missed. And if you can't get tickets this time around, be patient: The tour loops back through Denver in October, 2013.
Gavin Creel as Elder Price in 'The Book of Mormon.'
Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham takes a stab at preachin The Book of Mormon to Ugandan villagers in 'The Book of Mormon.'