It’s still Broadway’s hottest ticket, over four years into its run; now the musical returns to Portland, with a buzzing opening Wednesday, Jan 13, at the Keller. We’ve put together five things (including our Arts Team’s takeaway from opening night) you should know about the show that’s got critics raving—and one religion (guess!) even taking out advertisements in the program.
1. It's a box office smash hit
The show first came through Portland in December 2012 for a compact six-day run, then returned for two weeks in summer 2014. Third time around, you’ve got through Jan 24 (15 shows total) to catch the show that Variety says has “made a habit of breaking box office records.” (In 2014, it logged the highest gross return ever for one week of a national tour; tickets still routinely top $200.)
2. It was written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, aka the creators of South Park
Stone and Parker are not exactly known for their reverence, and the Book of Mormon pokes serious fun at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But when NPR’s Terry Gross pointed out in an interview that the Mormons in the show come across as lovable and optimistic all the same, Parker had this to say: “I don't think anybody would want to see a two-hour-long Mormon-bashing, and we wouldn't want to see that either. We love the goofiness of Mormon stories. Some of them are incredulous, and we loved almost all the Mormons that we had ever met. So this was sort of this conundrum that we like to talk about — we think what they believe is really, really ridiculous, and yet they seem like pretty happy people.”
3. Critics LOVED it
New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it “the best new musical (so far, anyway) of the 21st century." In a fittingly expletive-laden endorsement from Jon Stewart, the former Daily Show host said it was “so f**king good it makes me angry.” Plus, it's won nine Tonys, four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards, and a Grammy for the Best Musical Theater Album in 2012.
4. The LDS weighed in
The church lampooned in this production gave a measured response you can still see on its website: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
Not that this church is passively waiting for you in the wings—programs handed out at the Keller on opening night sported three full-page LDS ads suggesting that those who’ve seen the play “now read the book.”
5. We think you should see it
Opening night intermission at Book of Mormon saw plenty of unease amidst the excitement. After all, this is a musical where prophets simulate sex with frogs, missionaries routinely mangle the name of Ugandan heroine Nabulungi (Namba Gamba, Nasonex, Neiman Marcus, etc.), and holy books are shoved up asses. Such crude humor should not surprise anyone familiar with the past work of creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park, Cannibal! the Musical), and it often seems like one of their targets is the Broadway musical itself: its reductionism, expansive song-and-dance explosions, and often unexamined feel-goodery. Yet here it’s deftly handled and expertly executed, with some serious spectacle and hummable tunes.
And though it might feel the height of insensitivity for Portland audiences (on opening night, few of whom, we imagine, were either Mormon or Ugandan) to relax and fully enjoy the mad onslaught of blaspheming, stereotyping, and cultural mockery, that’s just what we suggest you do. Have faith! Because underneath the bathroom humor, these skilled storytellers weave a tale that goes to the heart of why many people look to religion in the first place: the redemptive, stubborn power of a good story. —RD and FM
The Book of Mormon is at the Keller Auditorium from January 14 through 24.