When the smash Broadway musical The Book of Mormon made its Utah debut in 2015
, you could feel the electricity in the audience of a crowd knowing that, wherever this show might have been born, it belonged to them. Two years later, that feeling still crackles its way through a new venue, the Eccles Theater.
It's there every time a song lyric or an idea hits a raw nerve in this show about Mormon missionaries Elder Price (Gabe Gibbs) and Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson) and their adventures in Uganda. Potential convert Nabulungi (Myha'la Herrold) imagines "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" as a place where "I'll bet the people are open minded," and the audience explodes; closeted missionary Elder McKinley (PJ Adzima) counsels about repressing feelings in "Turn It Off," and you can hear the knowing chuckles. Even the progressive ex-Mormons in the crowd might squirm a bit when the story of Joseph Smith gets scatalogical enhancements from the fib-prone Elder Cunningham, but there's never any doubt that this show is preaching to its choir.
The material itself is so satisfying that it's not always easy to recognize what any particular production and cast brings to that material. Herrold offers the strongest voice in her beautiful (but still hilarious) solo in "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," while Peirson finds his own angle on Cunningham's manic eagerness-to-please in the trail blazed by the role's originator, Josh Gad. Choreography might not play as prominent a role here as in some other musicals, but the ensemble does terrifically energetic dance work to complement the gleefully profane lyrics, most notably when the Ugandan missionaries go full glitz during "Turn It Off."
What remains impressive about The Book of Mormon
is that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (along with musical collaborator Robert Lopez) are sneaking a pro-religion message—about the power of metaphorical stories to give troubled people comfort and strength—into their heresies. If not every member of a Salt Lake City audience is ready to embrace that message, it's understandable. They can simply revel in references that come with a special added oomph for those who have lived in this state, or in this faith. Maybe gathering with others to hear Elder Price announce "I Believe" becomes part of an alternate kind of religious service: a united moment of euphoria and shared values. All that, plus an X-ray of a Book of Mormon shoved up somebody's ass.