A Temple of Laughs: 'The Book of Mormon' Mixes Plenty of Heart and Humor

The Book of Mormon follows two mismatched missionaries on their proselytizing trip to northern Uganda.

In the hit musical The Book of Mormon, one of the most controversial, yet memorable portions of the musical occurs early on during the first act.

After leaving their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints missionary training center, our two leads, Elder Kevin Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham are sent on their first missionary trip to northern Uganda, where the villagers, who live in appalling conditions, improve their outlook on life by repeating the phrase “Hasa Diga Eebowai.”

The phrases quickly turn to song, and while the tune might spark memories of familiar Disney-esque song-pieces like “Hakuna Matata,” the lyrics to the seemingly joyful Ugandan song actually translates into something that cannot be printed in this publication.

The sequence encapsulates The Book of Mormon in a nutshell. Currently in its ninth year on Broadway, people should expect more than a little bit of vulgarity in the musical (“South Park”’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the minds behind the play afterall), but beneath the surface of the incredibly popular musical are intelligent themes of acceptance and friendship, wrapped within a blanket of gut-busting humor.

This week, the Broadway favorite returns to Los Angeles with a limited engagement run at the Ahmanson Theatre, running through March 29 before moving on to San Francisco. Tickets start at $49. A limited number of lottery tickets will be available two and a half hours prior to each performance. The tickets will be drawn and priced at $25 each.

The musical follows the previously mentioned mismatched missionaries in the midst of their first trip to Uganda. While on the surface the two leads appear nearly identical (white short-sleeved shirt, black slacks, black tie and loafers) the two missionaries couldn’t be any different from one another. Elder Price is devout and enthusiastic, albeit a little pompous and overconfident, while Elder Cunningham is far more insecure, with a penchant for lying.

Tasked with converting the Ugandan villagers, the head-strong Price is sure he can succeed where his predecessors have failed, while the “puppy-dog”-like Cunningham doesn’t match his partners enthusiasm. The differences between the two missionaries provides much of the humor in The Book of Mormon, according to Liam Tobin, who plays Price.

“I think what is really great about the show is to really see the difference between Elder Price, who has always been the best at things, and Elder Cunningham, who has always certainly not been the best at things,” Tobin said. “To see how the two of them experience these things as they happen to them, to see how they overcome obstacles really make the show funny, and a joy to watch.”

Humor and Heart

The Book of Mormon, currently the 14th longest running show in Broadway history, was created by Parker, Stone and Robert Lopez, with Casey Nicholaw brought on during the early stages of development to co-direct and handle choreography. While Parker and Stone are well known for their comedic chops and Lopez has also earned a Tony for the puppet-filled musical comedy Avenue Q, Tobin said that where the musical really shines, is between the jokes.

“The show has a lot of heart too, mixed in with the human perspective,” Tobin said. “These guys are all experts at comedy, but I think what really surprises people is the heart that the show has. It has all these dimensions of acceptance and love.”

Jordan Matthew Brown plays Elder Cunningham and added that the jokes that pepper The Book of Mormon only add to the overall themes.

“I love that,” Brown said. “I love that it’s such brilliant comedy writing and it has such a heart underneath it.”

That surprise is why The Book of Mormon continues to draw such massive audiences, Tobin said. The play has earned more than $500 million in revenue at the box office since 2011, making it one of the highest grossing Broadway shows of all time.

“You actually care for these characters,” Tobin said. “That’s aside from just having an awesome time and escaping for a couple of hours. But also, for seasoned theater goers, there are a lot of nods to classic Broadway hits.”

Of the Broadway references throughout the musical, the instances that mention The Lion King are probably the most blatant and in your face. Not only does an African woman sing a variation of “Circle of Life,” the missionaries also respond to hearing the previously mentioned “Hasa Diga Eebowai” by asking if it means “no worries for the rest of your days,” a reference to “Hakuna Matata.” Other musicals such as The Sound of Music, Hairspray, Annie and Wicked also are referenced throughout the musical’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

“It’s not just for one generation [of] humor or something like that,” Tobin said. “It has something for everybody, every theatergoer at the show. I think all of those things combined, the amazing music, the script, all of it comes together to really make a one of a kind experience.”

For individuals who have already seen The Book of Mormon on Broadway, Brown said that the performance is pretty close to what you would get in New York, but noted that a new joke, or throwaway line is revealed on each subsequent viewing.

“For people who have seen it for the first time, or are seeing it for the second, or third time, they really need to come back because there is just so much in there. You’re going to find something new,” Brown said.

The Book of Mormon runs through March 29 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., or centertheatregroup.org.

sthomas@timespublications.com.