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November 24, 2017

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‘The Book of Mormon’ at the Smith Center: Do you know the way to Sal Tlay Ka Siti?


Joan Marcus

Denee Benton and Cody Jamison Strand in the second national tour of the nine-time Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” now at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts through July 6, 2014.

‘The Book of Mormon’

The second national tour of the nine-time Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” now at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts through July 6, 2014.

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Click to enlarge photo

David Larsen in the second national tour of the nine-time Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” now at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts through July 6, 2014.

Click to enlarge photo

Cody Jamison Strand in the second national tour of the nine-time Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” now at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts through July 6, 2014.

My family is originally from southeastern Idaho, the railroad hamlet of Pocatello. I’ve written frequently about Pocatello and nearby Lava Hot Springs, where my father runs a bed and breakfast.

The area is about a 2 1/2-hour drive northbound on I-15 from Salt Lake City. Or as the tribal villagers in “The Book of Mormon” pronounce it: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti!”

The region is predominantly Mormon. In those days, the population was about 75 percent LDS. Those who were Catholic or Greek Orthodox or embraced some other religion (or even no religion) occupied the great minority.

Having been baptized in the Greek Church and attended a Catholic grade school, I often observed the Mormons among us with a great deal of curiosity. What are the activities during Family Home Evening, I wondered? What do they talk about when they are wheeling around town on bicycles, dressed in the ever-familiar white shirts, black pants and skinny black ties? What do they think of those of us who are not Mormon?

We just didn’t know too much about that culture, in that community, in those days. Inevitably, there was a palpable level of tension. Those who wanted to repel missionaries from pressing the front doorbell were known to hang handcrafted signs reading, “No Religious Solicitors.”

But in the decades since, and having moved along to two cities in Northern California and finally Las Vegas, the religion is not such a mystery any longer. And that familiarity is what makes the musical “The Book of Mormon” so effective: You are never lost in the satire. Even if you have not actually read any of the text of the Book of Mormon — a distinction you would share with Elder Cunningham (played by Cody Jamison Strand with the comic verve of Jack Black or the late John Belushi, depending on your generational reference point) — you do get the jokes.

“In the biblical times of 1823 …” intones Christ in recorded voice, sounding suspiciously similar to the character Cartman from “South Park,” the animated TV series that made stars of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who wrote the “BOM” script along with “Avenue Q’s” Robert Lopez).

The concept of sending two apple-cheeked Mormon missionaries to northern Uganda (especially when one, Elder Price, has made Orlando his own promised land since age 9) is hilarious because we know that is the place where LDS lads would fit least comfortably. There is the song “Turn It Off,” which addressees such niggling issues as domestic abuse and homosexuality. When feelings of fear or guilt arise, just treat them like a light switch and “turn it off!”

The characters share in recurring dreams of hell in a scene that invokes a series of dancers wearing crimson onesies and bounding across the stage in hyperactive, “Jersey Boys”-style choreography. Hitler is in this hell, as are Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnnie Cochran, fighting mightily to pull an ill-fitting glove on to his right hand. A coffee brand that mimics Starbucks is the beverage of choice in this hell, important because the church’s rules against consuming caffeine are now universally understood.

The missionaries assigned to Uganda are hopelessly out of their element, as Elder Cunningham continually mispronounces the name of the young African girl Nabulungi (Denee Benton, at once beautiful and hilarious) as Neutrogena, Neosporin and Nala, among others.

But the stereotypes run both, as the African tribe buys into the ridiculously fictional account of the Book of Mormon as related by Elder Cunningham, who dazzles the villagers with references to Lt. Uhura, Darth Vader, Yoda and a pair of Hobbits. It is a land where Moroni landed on Earth in the Starship Enterprise and Joseph Smith is said to have sex with frogs to cure AIDS. And the locals question none of it.

All of these characters are unspooled during the one scene that prevents the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” from being the show’s funniest, when the Ugandan villagers perform a stage adaptation of the elder’s far-flung descriptions. That scene, in particular, rivals Monty Python’s hilarious take on the Catholic Church in “The Meaning of Life.” Sacrilegious as this may sound to Python purists: This production is worthy of comparison to the work by the original Python troupe, no question.

The bass line for the entire production is that the writers are presenting the Book of Mormon as fantasy. “I Believe” is loaded with contentions not to be believed, with the line, “And I believe in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!”

Early in the show, the angel Moroni tells Smith that he must spread the word about the golden plates he has found in upstate New York containing the scripture of the third book of the Bible. “Don’t let anybody see these plates except for you,” Moroni explains.

“They are only for you to see. Even if people ask you to show the plates to them, don’t. Just copy them onto normal paper. Even though this might make them question if the plates are real or not.”

The show’s profane lyrics and script have been dissected since it opened three years ago. The sharp delivery of this material prevents any of it from seeming gratuitous, including the name of the tribal warlord, whose explanation of that really offensive moniker actually makes sense. As Lopez told CNN, ““Broadway, for so many years, was a very wholesome community. As far as comedy, (Broadway) has not progressed as far as movies and TV (even though) there are no censors.”

Well, “The Book of Mormon” arrests that trend. The tribe swears and sings to great delight throughout the musical; by the end, you might be swearing, too.

What do our friends in the church have to say? Funny, the LDS hierarchy holds a sense of humor about the undeniable (and seemingly limitless) success of “The Book of Mormon” and is attempting to generate interest anew in the Book of Mormon. Tucked in the show program are three print ads showing people purported to be members of the LDS Church, quoted, “I’ve read the book,” “The book is always better” and “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”

Yes, you can text a five-digit number to receive a copy of the Book of Mormon from your seat at “The Book of Mormon.” Our friends at the church are buying into the joke in a real way. All that’s left for this product of a Catholic grade school to say is, “Preach it, brothers, all the way to Sal Tlay Ka Siti!”

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