Stage preview: Tony Award-winning smash 'The Book of Mormon' has a long run of converting skeptics



Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect launch year for the Broadway show.

The creators of television's "South Park" (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and the composer of the Tony-winner "Avenue Q" (Robert Lopez) got together to celebrate their love of traditional musicals, fascination with Mormons and penchant for potty-mouthed, on-the-money parody. The result was the musical "The Book of Mormon," which launched on Broadway two years ago today and went on to win nine Tony Awards, including best musical.

The show anointed by The New York Times' Ben Brantley as "heaven on Broadway" continues at a sold-out pace today, with productions in Chicago and London and a national tour that hits the Benedum Center Tuesday for a two-week run.

'The Book of Mormon'

Where: PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center.

When: Tuesday through April 7. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $41-$150 at www.Trustarts.org or 412-456-4800 (most shows have limited availability at this point).

Note: Explicit language would earn an R rating at the movies.

Lottery: One entry per person will be accepted at the Theater Square Box Office 2 1/2 hours prior to each performance; participants print their names and the number of tickets (1 or 2 per person) they wish to purchase on a provided card. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn for a limited number of tickets at $25 each. Winners must be present at the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets.

The story: Odd-couple Mormons Elder Kevin Price, the golden boy of the duo, and Elder Arnold Cunningham, a well-intentioned screw-up, are teamed on a mission to Uganda, where they encounter hostility and incredulity. The roles were originated by Tony nominees Andrew Rannells (TV's "Girls" and "The New Normal") and CMU grad Josh Gad (TV's "1600 Penn").

The missionaries encounter violent warlords and skeptical natives who are dealing with famine, AIDS, female circumcision, maggots in unmentionable places ... no vulgarity or obscenity is left unsaid. This is not the Africa of "The Lion King." Elder Price finds his faith shaken, while Elder Cunningham, who is prone to flights of fancy, attempts to rise to the occasion.

Cue the music. Don't hate yourself if you find that you're humming along to Mr. Lopez's bouncy gems, paired with Parker/Stone's witty, profane lyrics and co-director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw's high-energy production numbers. Subversive, smart numbers include "Turn It Off," about repressing feelings that don't fit the Mormon moral code; "I Am Africa," in which the lily-white Mormons presume to take ownership of the spirit of the country; and "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" -- that's "Salt Lake City," to the ears of a naive villager. Nikki M. James won a Tony as Nabulungi, the girl who is carried away by the missionaries' promise of "a land of hope and joy."

If you want to prepare yourself by listening to the soundtrack in the car, be sure to close the windows and lower the volume during "Hasa Diga Eebowai." Those are made-up words for a sacrilegious phrase that shows just how far the Ugandan villagers' faith has been tested.

Use your own judgment in deciding whether the show is right for you. It does contain explicit language. For further information, visit BookofMormonBroadway.com."

How do you spell $uccess?:

Supply and demand have made "The Book of Mormon" a box-office blockbuster. With premium ticket pricing, it beat "Wicked" (at the 14,472-seat Gershwin Theater) and "The Lion King" (13,416-seat Minskoff Theater) to become the top-grossing show in a week for the first time, even though "Mormon" had hundreds of fewer seats to sell. For the week of March 17, 2013, grosses listed at Broadway.com show that 8,752 people squeezed into the 8,528-seat O'Neill, and "Mormon" finished third to those two shows.

Hours after the 2011 Tonys broadcast, the musical set a Broadway record with a top ticket price of $487.25 for a prime orchestra seat bought within 48 hours of a performance, including service charges. That topped the $480 premium ticket introduced by "The Producers" in 2001 at Telecharge.com, the shows' official ticket seller. (Last week, premium seats were listed by Telecharge at $477).

Top-price seats for "The Book of Mormon" at the Benedum Center are $150, but on StubHub.com last week, you could have bought two orchestra seats for the March 30, show at the Benedum Center for $586 -- each. To compare another big seller coming to town, individual tickets for "The Lion King," which has sold out in two previous visits to the Benedum, do not go on sale until May 6 for the Sept. 3-29 run. The top price for a weekend seat is $139, but Stub Hub already is listing Row K center orchestra seats for $300 each (other ticketing sites list similar seats for a bit less).

Broadway-sized pricing has reached theater districts such as Pittsburgh because the tickets are so hard to come by. A preshow lottery for $25 seats (one or two per person) will be held before each of the Pittsburgh performances.

Among the limited number of available tickets for Pittsburgh performances, the two Easter Sunday performances have the most available tickets, said Marc Fleming, vice president of marketing and communications for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. "As with all shows, seats are released closer to each performance as company and technical needs are settled. Checking back is recommended." Subscribers always get the first crack at buying additional seats to shows, but Mr. Fleming said a good tip is to frequent the Trust Facebook page, follow it on Twitter (@CulturalTrust) or add your email to the list at trustarts.org for an inside track to "priority offers."

Mormon reaction to the musical

The official word from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the theatrical "Book of Mormon" came in February 2011: "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." When the show opened, billboards showing diverse, contemporary Mormons began appearing in Times Square, and the church has advertised in the Playbill program.

In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith," said "Mormons are distinctly aware of their own status as what they call a 'peculiar people,' a faith with a particular mandate from heaven, particular obligations to the divine that set them apart from the world. "

The "Book of Mormon" on stage isn't the Book of Mormon, of course, but many nuggets from the book have shaped the musical's story. For instance, the religion believes that Jesus visited America and that the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Mo.

The Parker-Stone fascination with Mormons is well-documented. Their 1997 film "Orgazamo" followed a young Mormon missionary who ventures into the pornographic film industry, and the religion has frequently been spoofed on Comedy Central's "South Park." The Nov. 19, 2003, episode "All About Mormons" featured "a super nice Mormon family" moving into the neighborhood and becoming a source of fascination for Stan Marsh and his dad.

theater - mobilehome

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published March 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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