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On Stage: 'The Book of Mormon,' or the gospel according to Yoda

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2013 - When Elders Price and Cunningham first learn they will travel together to Uganda as Mormon missionaries in training, Cunningham has one question for his new companion: “Are you a Star Wars guy or are you a Star Trek guy?”

A geeky gospel-spreader with a fixation on sci-fi characters, Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) is thrilled to have a new “best friend” in Mormon rising-star Price (Mark Evans). Together, they discover Uganda is “nothing like ‘The Lion King.’” But like Simba, they also discover strengths they never knew they had.

But likely, you won’t concentrate on any deep meaning within “The Book of Mormon,” created by “South Park’s” Matt Stone and Trey Parker and “Avenue Q’s” Robert Lopez, showing at the Fox Theatre. You'll be too busy laughing, than worrying if you should be laughing at that, then laughing anyway.

A flamboyant blonde Jesus with a Southern accent? How can that not be funny? Stone, Parker and Lopez get away with this and so much more because, at its core, “Mormon” is not a mean musical, but a sweet songfest that spares no one but loves everyone it skewers.

The gist:

Price and Cunningham face the uphill task of leading impoverished, AIDS-infected Ugandan villagers to their faith. That is, if the lions and tigers and a general with a variation of the F-word for a middle name (Derrick Williams) don’t get them first.

The villagers are more interested in flipping off a higher power “Hasa diga eebowai”-style (No, it does not mean “Hakuna Matata”) than finding one. 

District leader, Elder McKinley (Grey Henson), helps them through their discouragement, urging them to just “Turn It Off!” It’s a wonderfully campy number in which dancers wearing Mormon-issue outfits clap on/clap off the stage lights, reappearing at one point clad in sparkly, hot pink vests.

But Price can’t seem to turn off his bitterness that he wasn’t sent to Orlando. He checks out long enough for Cunningham to take on the unaccustomed role of leader, to “Man Up,” as the song goes. Cunningham’s penchant for lying -- or having a great imagination, as he calls it -- works to win the Ugandans over.

His first convert, the beguiling Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware) is a potential love interest as well. She doesn’t even seem to mind that he mangles her name to become Jon Bon Jovi, Neosporin and Neutrogena because he just can’t get his mind or tongue around anything that’s not white-bread English.

Cunningham’s creative license with the good book results in a play-within-a-play that’s so blasphemous that the actors’ oversized fake phalluses fail to shock.

Price’s trip to a “Spooky Mormon Hell” that turns scepters into chorus-line canes is another prime example of why this modern musical is just old-fashioned funny.

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.