“The Book of Mormon” is bawdy, blasphemous and brilliant

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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Joan Marcus)

Hellfire and damnation figure neatly in the wacky and wonderful “The Book of Mormon,” the latest production at the Kennedy Center. With book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, creators of the four-time Emmy Award-winning animated series “South Park,” you’ll luxuriate in all the irreverence you can handle, and then some. Winner of nine Tony Awards, the blowout show is legendary for its satirical take on Mormonism and its 21 unforgettably zany songs.

The story focuses on the bicycle-riding young men with their skinny black ties and crisp white shirts, eager to convert and skilled at proselytizing. Two by two, they comb the earth seeking out sin and sinners and spreading The Word.

Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are two of the innocents. Recently sprung from the church’s missionary training center, they are partnered up for their mission to Uganda, where they’ll rendezvous with other eager young evangelists. Two more disparate comrades are hard to conceive. Price (David Larsen) is handsome and self centered, brimming with untested confidence. Ready to take on the world, he is miffed to be conjoined with Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), a portly nerd with no sense of self-worth, who clings to Price like a limpet mine to a submarine.

Hoping to prove they’ll be worthy in the afterlife, the two unlikely apostles set off on a journey that is so convoluted, so riotous and so ungodly that your hair risks catching fire. At a send off staged by their parents, complete with a dancing witch doctor that references “The Lion King,” the hapless lads are told, “You get out there and you baptize those Africans!”

Instead, the boys realize converting the whole human race is not as easy as they had been led to believe. They discover the natives have their own brand of mythology, and it’s not any more far-fetched than Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s story of the uncorroborated golden plates he personally excavated in upstate New York. These descriptive Mormon-themed side skits are re-enacted hilariously by Smith (Christopher Shyer) and the Angel Moroni (Daxton Bloomquist) in dream sequences designed to compare the origins of the Latter Day Saints to the natives’ beliefs. But which of these tales are more fanciful?

Warlords and AIDS are on the minds of the Ugandans who have a middle-finger-raised musical response to God in the number “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” And a one-eyed general and bloodthirsty warlord, played by David Aron Damane, threatens to circumcise all the girls in the village by the end of the week.

There’s a sweet love story between the beautiful Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels) and Cunningham, a most unlikely suitor, who woos her with dreams of paradise. In the beautifully sung number “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” — heavily accented pronunciation of Salt Lake City — she places her hopes in his hands.

This isn’t “The Sound of Music,” though it takes a village. And Nabulungi’s convincing of her tribe isn’t based on truth — Cunningham has convoluted the church’s teachings to suit his ignorance of its contents. “I actually never read it,” he confesses. If you’re wondering how the Mormon church reacted to the blasphemous comedy, the quote is: “You’ve seen the play. Now read the book.” But Cunningham is determined to convert the girl and croons “Man Up,” describing Jesus’ bravery as “growing a pair.”

Credit must go to directors Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, Scott Pask for the scenic design, Ann Roth for costumes, Brian MacDevitt for lighting and the phenomenal 12-piece orchestra directed by Adam Laird and David Truskinoff. Many of the talented performers from the first Broadway production are in this touring company, making it just as bawdy and blasphemous as the original.

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