June 16 2016 09:45 AM

Delightfully vulgar ‘The Book of Mormon’ returns to Wharton Center

Left to right: Monica L. Patton, Ryan Bondy and Cody Jamison Strand in “The Book of Mormon.”
Photo by Joan Marcus

THURSDAY, June 16 — What else is there to say about “The Book of Mormon?” The musical, penned by Robert Lopez, who co-wrote the music and lyrics to “Avenue Q” and “Frozen,” and “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is a scathing satire of unthinking religion — mostly of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but there’s plenty of skewering to go around. Now on its second national tour, the production is a well-oiled, vulgarity-spewing, punchline-delivering machine.

The show, which opened at the Wharton Center Tuesday, centers on two young Mormon missionaries. Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) is a handsome, all-American boy with big ambitions. Bondy is like a cross between Mitt Romney and Jim Carrey, handsome and tall, with an ultra-expressive face that can project irrational confidence, uneasy smiles or outright disgust to the very back rows of the Wharton Center.

Elder Price, who had his heart set on Orlando, is crushed to find that he is being sent to Uganda. To make matters worse, he is paired with the schlumpy Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), a portly young missionary with a questionable understanding of the teachings of the church. Strand works this role for all it’s worth, reveling in Elder Cunningham’s incredible awkwardness.

The opening number, “Hello,” and ensuing scenes in the missionary training center are fun, but the musical really takes off when the duo lands in Uganda. The missionaries’ youthful idealism meets the grim realities of life in Africa in “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” the musical’s gloriously vulgar counterpunch to “Hakuna Matata.”

The pair meet up with the hapless group of missionaries stationed in the village, who are led by Elder McKinley (Daxton Bloomquist). Elder McKinley’s (barely) repressed homosexuality becomes a running joke, as Bloomquist plays up the tension between his feminine tendencies and societal expectations. His feature song, “Turn It Off,” is a cringe-worthy tribute to ignoring deep emotional problems.

There’s a neat bit of stagecraft in this tune. During a group tap dance number, the lights go out of a few seconds. When they come back on, the ensemble, while still tap dancing in the dark, has somehow donned pink sequined vests over their drab missionary garb. A similar trick happens in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” in the second act, where the ensemble, now dressed as demonic backup dancers, produces top hats seemingly out of thin air.

The missionaries’ attempts to convert the village draw the attention of an African warlord (David Aron Damane) obsessed with female genital mutilation. Depressed by the hopelessness of the situation, Elder Price tries to flee to Orlando. This leaves Elder Cunningham alone, and he discovers a newfound confidence in the Act One’s closing number, the hilarious, testosterone-charged “Man Up.” This type of uber-masculine, rock-driven song is reminiscent of Parker and Stone’s raunchy puppet comedy, “Team America: World Police.”

With the exposition out of the way, Act Two dashes to the finish with a series of songs, held together by brief transitional scenes. Elder Cunningham, flustered by his ignorance of the Book of Mormon, begins to craft his own version of the religion augmented by hobbits, Star Trek/Wars characters and immoral acts with frogs (“Making Things Up Again”). Elder Price confronts his demons (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “I Believe”), which leads to a physical confrontation with the warlord in which his Book of Mormon ends up in an uncomfortable place. (Hint: It’s not the back of a Volkswagen.) Elder Cunningham earns the trust — and affections — of Nabulungi (“Baptize Me”). A running joke where Elder Cunningham can’t remember her name is predictable but still funny every time. Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels), who has a limited role in the first act, emerges as the emotional core of the musical as she wrestles with her newfound faith.

The action comes to a head when the African villagers present a musical, “Joseph Smith American Moses,” based on Elder Cunningham’s apocryphal version of the Book of Mormon, for the visiting head of the missionary board. This sets off a chain of events that causes the missionaries to rethink — and reinvent — their faith.

While this musical pulls no punches, it doesn’t come off as anti-religion. It sets its face against unthinking obedience and religion that leads to bigotry, ultimately suggesting that faith — or lack of faith — is good only if it makes us kinder people.

“The Book of Mormon”
7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 16; 8 p.m. Friday, June 17; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 18; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 19
Tickets start at $48
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com