‘The Book of Mormon’ at Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center

The Book of Mormon is like a short, bracing vacation from political correctness. Between now and November 15th, taking a seat in Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre signals your willingness to stifle the angels of your better nature and enter into a giddy, juvenile conspiracy of laughter.

Monica L. Patton, David Larsen, AND Cody Jamison Strand. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Monica L. Patton, David Larsen, and Cody Jamison Strand. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For two solid hours you will not be expected to sympathize with any victims, relate to any alien cultures, nor sign any petitions for this or that corrective action. You will enter a “respect-free” zone where all that is asked of you is to mock what others are foolish enough to believe, howl at the calamities that befall them, and consider again what a frail, ludicrously naïve piece of work is man.

Is Book of Mormon blasphemous? No, it’s too darned silly to be offensive. It is simply playing devil’s advocate. In fact, at one point it even seeks Satan out in a lavish production highlight set in — where else? — Hell.

You might as well strap yourself in. Since its debut on Broadway in 2011, this bumpy musical ride has cheered, distracted and entertained just about everyone who has sat through it. It even took home nine Tony Awards, including the most coveted one of Best Musical for its trio of creators, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone.

If two of those names look familiar, that’s because Parker and Stone are the masterminds behind TV’s South Park and its feature film spin-off, which was a sort of storyboarded early draft of Book of Mormon. (The film even had its own Hell sequence.) The third name, Robert Lopez, belongs to the talented writer-composer of the uninhibited puppet musical, Avenue Q.

Few of the tunes here are musically sophisticated, but they provide consummate lip service to the witty, well-crafted onslaught of satirical lyrics.

Clinching the deal in Baltimore is a road show production that is as slickly staged as any Broadway offering. Original Director-Choreographer Casey Nicholaw and writer Trey Parker are credited with the fluidly paced succession of scene changes and high-energy performances.

The ensemble cast has no weak players, but it has one astounding standout in Cody Jamison Strand as nerd extraordinaire Elder Cunningham. This pint-sized butterball may have some difficulty keeping his white shirt tucked under his belt but he has no trouble at all keeping an audience under his thumb.

You will not be able to keep your eyes off Strand’s ticklish double-takes and quirky mannerisms. In the comic solos “I Am Here For You” and “Man Up!” he gleefully collects all the sympathy denied his fellow performers. Imagine the formative comic talents of Zero Mostel and Lou Costello stuffed into the forlorn figure of the drama-class clown every student used to adore.

The appeal of Elder Cunningham is crucial to the chemistry in Book of Mormon, because it must bind the show’s elements together when Cunningham and his missionary partner are dispatched to war-ravaged Uganda.

David Larsen is all that anyone could hope for as Elder Price, Cunningham’s new partner and the group’s most promising young missionary. Larsen is a whirling dervish of energy as he dispenses the Latter Day gospel of Joseph Smith with boundless optimism and certitude. He is also a very strong singer in brassy comic solos like “You and Me (But Mostly Me).”

The show’s most powerful lead singing voice, though, belongs to Candace Quarrels as Nabulungi, daughter of the local village chief. In “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” Quarrels delivers her own soaring anthem of hope inspired by the vision of paradise being peddled by the missionary teams.

Other strong support in the present cast comes from James Vincent Meredith as Hatimbi, the village chieftain who has his own profane motto for staying cheerful through the calamities visited upon his people. And David Aron Damane is a towering talent in more ways than one as the fiercely superstitious warlord, General Butt-F*-Naked.

The ensemble is filled with Broadway veterans, every one of them bringing this show added enthusiasm and comic cohesiveness.

Denèe Benton and Cody Jamison Strand. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Denèe Benton and Cody Jamison Strand. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Book of Mormon is today’s equivalent of Victor Hugo’s medieval “Fools Day.” All tenets of civilization are suspended as ugliness itself is judged and celebrated. While it lasts, the only human or animal right dare expected is the right to be abused. Happily, it is meted out in Book of Mormon with endless chapters of musical cheer.

Running Time: About two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. 

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The Book of Mormon plays through November 15, 2015 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif




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