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The Book of Mormon: singing, dancing, wisecracking into your reality

by Rita Kohn
December 20, 2018
Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University
4602 Sunset Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46208
317-940-6444
Rita Kohn, member: Dance Critics Association, Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild
Are those sleigh bells ringing?

Not quite, but The Book of Mormon running through Dec. 23, brings glitz to Indianapolis’ holiday season with its splendor-laden production values reinforcing the sparkle of Winter lights at Newfields, a short drive from Clowes Memorial Hall at the Butler University Arts Center.

The Book of Mormon extends the concept of Broadway musical as rock opera into another dimension of musicality with its solid base of all elements crescendoing toward its inner core—if truth is elusive, metaphor is how you survive. Of course, its creators are diligent about building from what’s come before, so find comfort and joy through glyphs of familiarity.

Cutting satire peels away artifice, blatant caricature propels character development, rampant racism flings us into understanding ‘the other’ in human terms; all together, this fluff is anything but bluff—there’s heart in the artifice and it’s a simple truth we can’t escape: underneath, every one—not just a just a universal ‘everyone’—is the same with similar/parallel hopes, expectations, fears, setbacks, successes, failures. What’s different are access to opportunity and social justice. And that’s equally blatantly clear—if you’re willing to feel what the characters are showing us, see into and around what the lines and lyrics are telling us.

After all, we in the comfort of our seats yearn with hopefulness, supplicate with prayer. We harden with life’s knock-downs, cave in when the going gets tough, seek that intangible lifeline called unity/community. The Book of Mormonhurls us into multiples of ‘what if’s’ and sends us home sorting out, ‘so, what would you do if this was you?’

What would/could you do if you were a resident of an impoverished village in Uganda under siege by a rifle-laden warlord?

[The get full-data part of me asks, Shouldn’t the Playbill supply us with a map for geographic location, or at least let us know something about Uganda if we’re being sent there via the Mormon Mission? Checking at home, I learned it’s currently a presidential republic, landlocked across the equator in Eastern Africa, Christianity is followed by nearly 75% of the population, half the population of 44,270,563 lives on the equivalent of $1 a day, and while coffee is Uganda’s main export, little of it comes to the U.S. If you visit anticipate breathtaking scenery with lakes and rivers.]

What would/could you do in the shoes of Elder Cunningham or Elder Price thrust into a place about which they know nothing?

Heady stuff capsulized into a musical that offers an easier way to swallow the hard-knock realities of what’s out there in the criss-cross worlds of converting "the other" when their major concerns are staying alive physically. Exactly how are your spiritual promises are going to get rid of bullying, AIDS, cholera, hunger? When Elder Cunningham, convincingly portrayed by Conner Pierson, taps into this reality the "conversion" concept ebbs into a unity of purpose that’s ripe for a sequel. What’s the rest of the story for Elder Price, meticulously portrayed by Liam Tobin as riding a rollercoaster of every life-emotion in the performance I witnessed on December 19”

For now, this iteration is a trilogy of dimensional characters, spinning a solid storyline along a song-and-dance trajectory advancing the creators’ point-of-view from start to finish. This irreverent look at religion and governance, reality and delusion, truth and circumstance sucks us in because at heart it is not mean spirited; it’s a fable with a bedrock punchline shored up by a gaggle of punch lines coming at you from all quarters. “Tomorrow is a Latter”—really? uh huh—really.

The honesty of the send-up comes not so much from the physical book powered so eagerly by the ‘elders of the church’ but rather from the utility of what makes a "new religion" work.

Leona Holbrook, in an article in the Brigham Young University Studies Quarterly 16:1, [access at: www.byustudies.byu.edu/content/dancing-aspect-early-mormon-and-utah-culture], posits: “Under Joseph Smith's leadership, dance and other forms of recreation were sponsored because his followers were socially isolated, because they were organized with intimate social relationships, because they were good followers, and because the doctrine had been propounded "Man is that he might have joy.

“Brigham Young is credited with having had a revelation, which reads in part: "If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving." This gave the Mormons the final sanction they needed for dancing, the sustaining and morale building activity which was to become a part of their cultural pattern.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has continued to give emphasis to dance in all of its reputable forms,” emphasizes Holbrook. “Ballet, ballroom, folk, square and modern dance carry a cultural and quality expression. Dance is a contemporary, cultural, creditable activity in Utah, stemming from early Mormon practices and practiced by modern Mormons.”

You’ll find this truthful expression throughout “The Book of Mormon,” from the raucous opening jazz combo, the jaw-dropping tap routine and the moves that give truth to “I Am Africa” glittering within the full-spectrum of Broadway musical swag, all the way to the inherent curtain-call invitation to jump up and dance wherever you’re sitting. Everyone on stage gives 150%. The traveling six-member orchestra conducted by Andrew Graham is complemented by five Indianapolis musicians from Local 3, AFM.

The energy is high, the expectations are honest, the takeaway is yours to grow with.

The Book of Mormon

Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone

Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker.

Tickets: www.indianapolis.broadway.com/shows/book-mormon-baa-ss

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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