3 1/2 stars
What: "The Book of Mormon"
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Nov. 21, 1 p.m. Nov. 24, through Nov. 24
Where: Buell Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver
Info: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org
Parents' guide: Mature subject matter and language. Appropriate for adult audiences
DENVER -- You've no doubt heard that "The Book of Mormon" is the greatest stage musical of the 21st century, thanks to an expert advertising campaign, a passel of Tony Awards and a generic understanding that any show that bashes the Mormon Church can't be all bad.
Given how young the century is, one can't quite embrace such a proclamation. What one can say is that this swift, ribald and riotous show is supremely entertaining, and then some.
The national tour of "The Book of Mormon" has returned to the Buell Theatre in Denver for another sold-out five-week run. Popular opinion brands it as the must-see show of the season. But don't worry. If you miss it, you probably won't go to hell.
The strength of this musical satire by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone is that it borrows musical conceits from any number of past stage hits -- "The Lion King," "Rocky Horror Picture Show" -- and couches them in a plot that would have been banned in Boston, Des Moines and Salt Lake City 50 years ago. Theatrical convention has long held that religion is to be celebrated a la "The Sound of Music," not mercilessly skewered.
This show throws out the conventional handbook by focusing on Mormon Elders Price (Nic Roleau) and Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), two fresh-faced young men being sent on their mission for the church. Price is the proverbial Golden Boy who dreams of being stationed near the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. Elder Cunningham is your classic nerd, endowed with the goofy awkwardness of a puppy.
They are paired together for the mission. And they are sent to Uganda.
A couple of uptight white guys dropped into AIDS-ravaged Africa? That's the first satirical smackdown, as Parker and Stone lampoon the notion of Mormons, any religion, really, saving a populace that would seem to have more pressing concerns.
Once abroad, the neophytes encounter some fellow elders who've had absolutely no luck in baptizing the locals. Price is still shocked he has been sent to the anti-Disney World. Elder Cunningham is happy to be anywhere but home with his smothering parents. And the rest of the gang pivot between fervor for their religion and a need suppress their physical desires and "Turn It Off."
It's one of several infectious songs that embody everything from traditional tap to tribal dances. Some of the titles and a few of the lyrics can be quoted in a family newspaper, but suffice to say those with ultra-conservative leanings might find the show tantamount to a cultural inquisition.
The Ugandan villagers are a feisty lot, led by the preternaturally upbeat Nabulungi (Syesha Mercado). Not only are they dealing with a plague, they're under constant threat from a rebel general (David Aaron Damone) hell-bent on circumcising female villagers. Not exactly a common occurrence in musicals.
By fusing so many controversial themes -- religion, poverty, gender mutilation -- with peppy let's-put-on-a-show production values, "The Book of Mormon" definitely crosses a line, but not in a bad way. Sure, the resolution here is as predictable as anything ever seen on Broadway, and despite their upbeat delivery, few of the songs will register the longevity of those from, say, "Oklahoma."
Mostly this show succeeds on concept and execution. Mercado and Holmes are the standout actors here, with a nice assist from the giddily flamboyant Pierce Cassedy. And if the plot isn't exactly a love letter to Joseph Smith (the missionaries aren't allowed to question the founding tenets of their faith), neither is it a blistering indictment.
If you've seen "South Park," "Team America," "Orgazmo" or anything else by Parker and Stone, you already know there's nothing they're not willing to lampoon. So it is with "The Book of Mormon," which laughs not at God but at man's sometimes-flawed interpretation of His will.