On Theater: 'Book of Mormon' takes Segerstrom Center stage by storm

You've heard a lot about "The Book of Mormon," the winner of nine Tony awards including best musical, now winding up its local premiere at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts. How it's raunchy, irreverent, hilarious and — according to the New York Times — the best musical of this century.

Let's add another observation. "The Book of Mormon" is the most skillfully choreographed musical of the century, or at least the best to be staged locally. Casey Nicholaw, who's co-directing the show with co-creator Trey Parker, has fashioned some of the most eye-popping production numbers ever exhibited on any stag.

Parker and Matt Stone, best known for their scathing send-up of grade school kids, TV's "South Park," collaborated with Robert Lopez to bring their brutally funny treatment of Mormonism to Broadway. It's a joyous infusion of hilarity on its own, but with Nicholaw's elaborate choreography it becomes a modern classic.

"The Book of Mormon" centers on a pair of young missionaries — the suave, self-assured Elder Price (David Larsen) and the schlumpy, rumpled Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand). They're matched as partners (to Larsen's chagrin) and sent to convert the heathen natives of Uganda.

Once there, all heck breaks loose as the missionaries find a reluctant, indeed hostile, congregation. The Ugandans are more concerned with famine, AIDS relief and a powerful warlord with an unprintable name who's out to circumcise the village's young girls.

Larsen goes as far as he can on personal magnetism, which is pretty far indeed, but it's Strand whose message finally gets through — especially to a pretty young Ugandan girl (Denée Benton), whom he awkwardly baptizes while finding his own self-respect. Benton's lively performance lends a touch of class to counteract the villagers' pandemonium.

Most imposing overall is David Aron Damane as the one-eyed general who holds the town in thrall with his sheer size and force of will (not to mention that bleeping name). Christopher Shyer, doubling as Price's father and the visiting mission president, also impresses, somewhat more subtly.

In the supreme choreographic segment of the show, titled "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," Larsen's Price is plunged into the fiery underworld, where he is tortured by demons, Lucifer, the spirits of Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Genghis Khan, Johnnie Cochran and dancing cups of coffee (true Mormons never touch the stuff).

Other production number highlights are the early "Two by Two," pairing the missionary lads with pinpoint coordination, and the first-act curtain closer, "Man Up," as the missionaries find their inner bullies. A second-act rouser is "Joseph Smith American Moses" — a sort of homage to "The King and I" and its "Small House of Uncle Thomas" — in which the natives present their version of the Smith-Brigham Young story to the horrification of visiting Salt Lake City bigwigs.

That segment, with the men prancing around with dildos and doing unmentionable things with frogs, may be a bit over the top, but it keeps the belly laughs coming. Sight gags propel this satirical adventure, which is designed to roll up hilarity and blasphemy into one big ball and then knock it out of the park.

"The Book of Mormon" — which will visit Salt Lake City for the first time next year (that should be interesting) — is unlike anything you've ever experienced on a musical stage. It may shock, it may revolt, but it'll also keep you laughing uproariously as it heads into its closing weekend at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

If You Go

What: "The Book of Mormon"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Closing performances 7:30 p.m. Friday,2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Tickets are sold out

Information: (714) 556-2787, scfta.org

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