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Ding-dong! 'The Book of Mormon' is at St. Louis' door

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 15, 2013 - We’ve been waiting two years for "Mormon" missionaries to ring the doorbell on the St. Louis stage. Now, opening night for "The Book of Mormon" — winner of nine Tony Awards — is just days away.

No performance of the satirical musical is sold out; limited tickets are still available, even on weekends. But Becky Patel, 34, of Clayton, is glad she has her tickets in hand.

While visiting New York in 2011, Patel was disappointed that she couldn’t get seats for a Broadway performance. She’s looking forward seeing it at The Fox on Feb. 23.

"I’ve heard that it really got good reviews," Patel said. "It seems like a very different kind of show — irreverent and entertaining."

'Turn It Off!'

The Book of Mormon is a sacred text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), informally called the Mormon Church. It’s said to have been written by ancient prophets. “The Book of Mormon,” the musical, springs from the minds of modern-day comedy writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the animated television show "South Park," along with composer and lyricist Robert Lopez.

But even if your kids watch "South Park," you’ll want to think twice before taking them to "Mormon." Being offensive is part of its charm, according to fans.

The impious musical relates the story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two inexperienced Mormon missionaries, who are sent to Uganda — not Orlando, as one had hoped — to share the sacred book. But the local population, more concerned with war, famine, AIDS and a menacing warlord than religion, is resistant.

Enter Elder McKinley, the district leader. McKinley tells the pair how to handle rejection, or any other bothersome feeling: you simply "Turn It Off."

McKinley’s signature song advises, "Turn it off, like a light switch, just go click! It’s a cool little Mormon trick!" This notion also helps (sort of) to turn off his feelings of attraction to other men.

Grey Henson, who plays McKinley in the touring cast, is a gay man who grew up in a small Georgia town. He said he can empathize with McKinley’s difficulty accepting himself. But Henson had a supportive family who encouraged him to live authentically. There’s hope for McKinley, too, Henson said, in an interview with the Beacon.

"There’s a little hint of a new Elder McKinley coming through. Keep your eyes on him; he’s going to eventually come out of his shell a little bit more," Henson said.

Too far from 'South Park' roots?

As a young boy, Henson wasn’t allowed to watch "South Park."

"When it was in its heyday, I was watching 'Nickelodeon,' " Henson said. "But now Trey Parker and Matt Stone are like gods to me."

Scott Miller, founder of a St. Louis theater company, shares Henson’s assessment of the creative team.

"South Park is brilliant. Some of the greatest social commentary of our time has come out of it," Miller said.

But the artistic director of New Line Theatre, which specializes in edgy musicals, is less effusive in his praise for "The Book of Mormon," which he saw in New York. The play’s big on fun but short on the social commentary.

"I don’t love it like a lot of people do, but I like it," Miller said. "I did laugh a lot — and that’s what they’re aiming for."

Still, New Line is not likely to stage "Mormon." For one thing, Miller is uncomfortable with the play’s portrayal of the Ugandan people.

"It seems like all the black characters were all kind of dumb, which feels a little creepy," Miller said. "Usually Matt Stone and Trey Parker are amazing about challenging racism."

Mormons weigh in

Another corner where you might expect criticism is from the Mormon church. Joan Brannigan, 70, of Olivette, said one reason she’s looking forward to seeing "Mormon" is that she "read that the Mormon people weren’t really upset about it — that they liked it."

Indeed, shortly after the play opened, one Mormon told the "Salt Lake Tribune," "If you can ignore some of the obscenities and raunchiness, you’ll be delighted." Another wondered if the play might spark play-watchers’ interest in becoming a Mormon missionary.

Ben Munson, a spokesman for the LDS St. Louis region wouldn’t go as far as calling it an opportunity. Still, Munson, who has not seen the play, acknowledged it has the potential to start a discussion.

"It certainly brings it into the topic of conversation," Munson said.

The church’s official stance on the play is: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."

"The Book of Mormon" play is also an uplifting experience, according to actor  Henson, who wants people to know it has "a beautiful message."

"It’s a story about friendship and honesty and caring for one another and accepting people for who they are," Henson said. "And how these people realize that there’s more to life than trying to be perfect."

Watch Grey Henson talk about his role of Elder McKinley.

Watch Matt Stone and Trey Parker on “The Daily Show”.

Watch Andrew Rannnels in the role of Elder Price sing “I Believe” from “The Book of Mormon" at the 2011 Tony Awards show.

Additional Reading

New York Times: Why Race Is Still a Problem for Mormons

MormonPerspectives.com "The Book of Mormon" review

Information on the LDS missionary program

Reduction in minimum age sends LDS missionary applications up 471 percent

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.