“The Book of Mormon” made its 20th stop on its national tour at the IU Auditorium Tuesday. The satirical musical, which will be at IU until Thursday, tells the story of two Mormon missionaries struggling to spread the word of their religion in Uganda.
The show has long been applauded for its humor, being called one of the funniest musicals of all time by numerous publications. These claims are shown to be well-supported from the very first scene, which shows an abridged version of the story of Mormon, who was given the text of the Book by God on golden plates.
The first number, “Hello!,” introduces the Mormon ensemble by showing their door-to-door-salesman technique for disseminating the titular Book. Immediately, the chemistry between the actors on stage was apparent.
Jokes within a musical number require precise and practiced timing, and this company landed each one while keeping their choreography clean and tight. The two main characters, Elders Price, played by Sam McLellan, and Cunningham, played by Sam Nackman, were especially charismatic, with Cunningham’s awkward flailing playing well off of Price’s prim-and-proper attitude.
The technical prowess of the production was made obvious during one of the show’s funniest and most provocative songs, “Turn It Off.” A tune about “turning off” unwanted feelings such as grief and homosexuality, the number featured a tap-dancing section with intermittent points of complete darkness lasting a couple of seconds each. During one of these, the entire dancing ensemble managed to add pink sequined vests to their costumes in an impressive, surprising and hilarious reveal.
The vocal performances were all excellent, but Berlande Millus’ Nabulungi really stood out during songs like “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” and “Baptize Me.” Her voice carried beautifully through the auditorium, sounding clear, bright and commanding. It became easy to forget the silly context of the show in light of her performance.
Unfortunately, at the Tuesday show, Sam Nackman became ill at the end of the first act, so Evan Lennon stepped into the shoes of Elder Cunningham. As is to be expected, this impeded the character’s momentum somewhat, but Lennon quickly fell into step with the rest of the ensemble.
He may not have had Nackman’s stage presence or distinct vocal quality, but he was funny and energetic in the role, playing it confidently despite the stressful circumstances. It was certainly an impressive understudy performance.
The set design was especially immersive in this production. The stage was at all times outlined by a beautiful church façade with stained glass windows that changed color according to the scene, and the Ugandan village set pieces were elegantly designed with great detail and care.
During the song “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” the set changed completely and quickly for an elaborate Hell sequence featuring an ensemble of dancing demons and an enormous and intricately-costumed Lucifer bearing down on the scene from backstage. It was a shame that this set was used so briefly, as it was one of the most visually stunning parts of the show.
Despite its flamboyant critique of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, “The Book of Mormon” still manages to be a remarkably uplifting musical. By the end, the characters feel complex and fleshed out, and the community and friendship fostered throughout the story is satisfying and earned, being shown most prominently in the final hilarious and heartwarming number, “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day.”
This show could have taken the opportunity to be much more biting in its commentary, but the fact that it ends up endorsing a message of positive community-centered belief gives it much more staying power. It’s this sort of optimism that elevates “The Book of Mormon” from a very funny musical to an all-time classic.