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The ‘Book of Mormon’: A satire that doubles as a recruitment tool

The 'Book of Mormon's' Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. Credit: Photo: Joan Marcus

This is not a "Book of Mormon" review. “Book of Mormon” needs a review about as much as Bill Gates needs you to lend him bus fare. The Seattle run of the show, which features the original Broadway cast, has been sold out for months with ticket resale prices edging toward $250 apiece.

The high-energy musical follows Mormon golden boy Elder Price and his rotund and endearing (despite the compulsive lying problem) sidekick Elder Cunningham, as they embark on their first mission to . . . Uganda.  As you might expect, the pair is ill-prepared for a world that features warlords, AIDS, blasphemy and scrotum maggots.

Yes, "Book" is as good as everyone says. Yes, you should see it if you get the chance.

The real question though is how the Latter Day Saints themselves think about the show. Some have balked at Book’s coarse language and overt sexualization of Mormon missionaries. “Baptize Me” features Elder Cunningham serenading a saucy Ugandan convert-to-be who is wearing a short white dress:

“I’m about to do it for the first time . . . and I’m going to do it with a girl,” sings Cunningham.

“He will baptize me, right in front of everyone,” she sings back with delight.

But the Mormon church has wasted no time in sidling right up alongside "Book." The church bought three full-page ads in the show’s program. In one an attractive and ethnically diverse trio flashes their pearly whites at program perusers: “I’ve read the book,” boasts the goateed fellow with friendly crinkles around his eyes. The implied, “And so should you,” is missing, but not lost.

Why, in Joseph Smith’s name, is the Church of Latter Day Saints trying so hard to cozy up to the South Park collaborators skewering their beliefs? I can think of a few reasons:

  • It might be satire, but it’s educational. The story of Joseph Smith finding the golden plates that would become the real Book of Mormon on a hill in upstate New York and leading his followers toward Salt Lake City is all there. So is Smith’s transference of the plates to Brigham Young when he fell too ill to complete his journey. And the fact that the general public is clamoring to see a show that teaches them something – anything – real about Mormonism is great news.

"One thing that's really clear to me is that Americans are so curious about and so hungry to connect with Mormons and we've been so inaccessible," Mormon author Joanna Brooks told the LA Times in September. "It took [the creators of] 'South Park' to push Mormons out into telling our stories."

  • It airs the dirty laundry – all of it. Yeah, you can’t really be gay and Mormon, but there’s a solution for same-sex attraction and any other unfortunate thoughts you might be having. Croons one peppy self-suppressing gay missionary:

    When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head
    Don’t FEEL those feelings,
    Hold them in instead. 
    Turn it off, like a light switch.
    Just go click.
    It’s a cool little Mormon trick.

    In moments like this, the show innoculates audiences against the church's more controversial positions with fancy footwork and pervasively flamboyant undertones.

Although "Book" pokes plenty of fun at the naivete and self-repression of the church’s missionaries and the rigidity of church rules, polygamy is nowhere to be found. This must be a welcome absence after the popularity of HBO’s hit series, “Big Love,” which dramatized the life of a prominent Mormon businessmen and his suite of wives.

Book, for all its cheeky satire, is the best PR Mormon church leaders are likely to see — and they know it.

  • It makes missionaries lovable. Beaten down by the trials of Uganda, we find the ineffable Elder Price slumped at a coffee stand, on a caffeine bender fueled by dreams of sparkling Orlando, Florida. His shame is matched only by the long-ago memory of stealing a maple-glazed donut from his parents’ kitchen and blaming it on his younger brother. Meanwhile, Elder Cunningham, a self-proclaimed follower, finds himself spinning elaborate Star Wars-laced appropriations from the Book of Mormon to desperate villagers. The Elders are a hard pair to dislike.
  • It’s a recruitment tool. As we strolled into the theater, we passed a group distributing flyers: “Enjoy The Show!” the fliers urged. “But please, don’t be educated about The Church of JESUS CHRIST of latter-day Saints by South Park.”

The play does seem to be having an effect in the real world. In that LA Times article, an Angeleno Mormon Elder confirmed that the show had inspired people to read the actual Book of Mormon. And why not? It's hard to resist the friendly dude (African-American), who smiles up at you from the playbook: “You’ve seen the play … Now read the book.”

If you haven't already, there’s still time to catch a performance — and score $25 tickets through a day-of lottery system at the Paramount.

Meanwhile, I'm feeling just a bit more open to the idea of missionaries at my door – especially if they’re anything like Elder Cunningham.

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