‘The Book of Mormon’ captivates on Broadway – Annie Laurie Gaylor

If you’ve seen the Broadway hit musical, The Book of Mormon, you’ll know what “Hasa diga eebowai” means! In case you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil the surprise with a definition. But take it from me, the scene in which fresh-faced Mormon missionaries realize what they have been chanting with their Ugandan hosts has got to be one of the funniest ever played on Broadway.

“The Book of Mormon” is a creation of the famously potty-mouthed pair, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who bring you “South Park,” teamed with the songwriter Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q.”

“The Book of Mormon” is not only a send-up of Mormonism and missionaries in general but of Broadway musicals (“The Lion King” in particular), with many oblique and not-so-oblique references to other musicals.

Knowing we would be in New York City shortly after the play opened, I bought tickets before it became a sellout. But clearly, word had leaked out in the meantime. We arrived at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on a Friday night in early April to find lines wrapping around the block and more lines of people waiting for cancellations. The excitement was palpable.

The laughter started as soon as the play opened with the sound of a doorbell. A group of young men had only to stand on stage in their Mormon uniforms of white shirts and black trousers to get a chuckle. The audience was in stitches by the time the actors formed into a chorus line of “elders” practicing their conversion patter.

I have never been in a theater that literally rocked with such explosions of continuous laughter. The over-the-top “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” sequence manages to sustain its energy and silliness for what seemed like 10 minutes. (Our hapless Mormon missionary boy is lost amid whirling Starbucks coffees, Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer.)

It’s not for nothing that “The Book of Mormon” topped the nomination list for Tony Awards with 14, including best musical, best book of a musical, best original score, direction, choreography, orchestrations, scenic design, costume design, lighting design, sound design, as well as for leading actors Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, featured actor Rory O’Malley and featured actress Nikki M. James.

‘Chloroform in print’

The plot features the golden-haired boy missionary, Elder Price (Andrew Rannels), and odd-duck Elder Cunningham, who in times of stress makes up stories that seem no more ridiculous than those in the real Book of Mormon. Cunningham is played brashly and with a hysterical laugh by Josh Gad, a regular on “The Daily Show.” Price’s bright hopes of being sent to missionize Orlando, Fla., are blighted when he’s paired with Cunningham and sent instead to a nearly destroyed village in Uganda.

Think of the tall order the playwrights had in trying to explain Mormonism — not just in the storyline to the Ugandans in dire straits, but to theater audiences. This is one strange religion. They solved the dilemma with hilarious Mormon “diorama” scenes, one of which prefaces the play. While it might strike you as looking somewhat like a badly staged elementary school offering, the dioramas authentically capture the sickly sweet religious tableaux and bizarrely naive devotional paintings beloved by Mormons everywhere.

The hammy Jesus, whose laid-back Southern California accent sounds a lot like Trey Parker, is lit up like a Christmas tree with strings of lights on his robe. The intermittent scenes reenact key passages of Mormon doctrine, such as the notion that after his crucifixion and before his resurrection, Jesus appeared to native Americans in “Eden” (Missouri?!). God cursed them with dark skins for reasons incoherent to anyone but a faithful Mormon.

The more bizarre exploits of Joseph Smith get a similar reenactment for the benefit of Ugandan villagers, who are falling asleep as one of the missionaries reads from the book that Mark Twain summed up aptly as “chloroform in print.” Elder Cunningham’s desperation to connect Mormon theology with their lives ends in an X-rated parody of “The King and I.”

Among the standout scenes is “Turn It Off,” in which the theater lights go dark as the missionaries (including one who “used to be gay”) counsel each other on how to separate their religion from their intellects and real feelings. “Baptize Me” is a double-entendre number in which Nabulungi (the comely village maiden) and Cunningham soulfully express how they feel about doing it “for the first time.”

While the play has been hailed by Stone as “an atheist love song to organized religion,” and thus hasn’t ruffled as many feathers as it might have, the freethinking is there above and beyond the irreverency. Nabulungi sings a song about her newfound paradise, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (say it fast). When her hopes are dashed that the Mormon boys will rescue her village from poverty, AIDS, and a terrorist general bent on sexually mutilating the women, she’s consoled by a wise older woman, who tells her “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” doesn’t really exist. You have to make a paradise of the world you’re in.

“Tomorrow Is a Latter Day” ends the play with a freethinking pun.

My advice: Go see it on Broadway now if you possibly can. Because, with its sweetly offered profanity and plotlines in which the adjectives crude or gross are not too strong, I would prophesy (Why not? Mormons do it all the time) that this is not a play that will be coming any time soon to your local high school or community theater.

And here’s to a new chant, “Hasa Diga Eebowai!”

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and co-host of Freethought Radio: ffrf.org/news/radio/

Freedom From Religion Foundation