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As ‘Book of Mormon’ ends Chicago mission, tears of laughter run to Sal Tlay Ka Siti

Submitted by on Jul 15, 2013 – 2:35 pm

Review: “The Book of Mormon” at Bank of America Theatre through Oct. 6. ★★★★

By Nancy Malitz

This you can believe: “The Book of Mormon,” Chicago’s sit-down production of the hit Broadway show that is totally outrageous and equally endearing, will end its run at Bank of America Theatre on Oct. 6 so that a national tour with the same cast can commence. Broadway in Chicago is already promising a return, after visits to Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities, but not until sometime in the 2014-15 season.

Every show of long duration is altered by each new cast and theatrical space, but there’s something even better than Broadway in the chemistry of the Chicago duo who play the impossible dreamer Elder Price and his surpassingly lesser sidekick Elder Cunningham.

They may not save the world, but they’ll end up converting you in a swiftly moving side-splitter by the creators of “South Park” and “Avenue Q” that mocks the tradition of Mighty Mouses, Lone Rangers, Cinderellas and zealous do-gooders of all days, including Latter Days, with shockingly funny one-liners and over-the-moon choreography. Could a “South Park” style ribbing be the best thing that ever happened to Disney? For a certain adult segment of the American public, the answer is “The Book of Mormon,” Q.E.D.

Nic Rouleau plays Elder Price, a doorbell-ringing Mormon on an unlikely mission to save Uganda, which he pursues, toothy grin, white short-sleeved shirt and all. And although his earnest first choice had been to convert Orlando — surely a missionary’s Shangri-La — he sets forth dutifully for the land of the lion king with determination and bravado while continually course-correcting his goofily self-absorbed, doubting side-kick (Ben Platt).

Elders Price and Cunningham are immediately robbed by a foul-mouthed, AIDS-ridden gang of thieves and learn their fellow missionaries have failed to convert a single heathen. But these are Mormons, who’ve been taught to “Turn It Off” when beset by a negative thought. Or so they vow.

Ben Platt plays Elder Cunningham, an unforgettable Sancho Panza for our own time. Elder Price may have memorized the Book of Mormon, line by line, but Elder Cunningham never got past the cover. So when the lesser Elder tries to explain his Mormon beliefs to curious Ugandans, he freely fudges facts with frogs, “Star Wars” plot twists and whatever else comes to mind.

In fact, Elder Cunningham makes things up whenever he gets self-conscious, which is pretty much all the time, and it’s in these nervous blurts of improvisation that Platt, who is a brilliant buffoon, writes in a whole new book of mannerisms for this show by way of comic relief.

So who gets the girl? Remember, this isn’t Disney. When the beautiful Syesha Mercado, as the downtrodden Nabulungi, sings of that faraway Mormon capital “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” as the place Cunningham has assured her dreams will come true, the crowd goes wild.

In fact, the quality of this music score by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone — which has knowingly assimilated the entire Broadway canon even as it plies the tongue-in-cheek skills — demands the kind of electrifying singing that Rouleau, Platt and Mercado consistently provide.

Choreographer Casey Nicholaw (who co-directs with Parker) has great fun with his all-male Mormon chorus line, not to mention the almost-scary “Spooky Mormon Hell” (with dancing Starbucks coffee cups) and the hilarious send-up of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from “The King and I.”

Chicago gets its share of Broadway tryouts, non-equity tours and faded bus-and-truckers that succeed only in part. That’s show business. But this “Book of Mormon” is the real thing — a vigorous transplant worthy of the Broadway name.

“The Book of Mormon” intends to offend. It’s for people who think the word funny can sit in the same sentence with “Blazing Saddles” or “Spamalot.” One of the Generals has a three-word name; two of them are Butt and Naked and the third must be left to the imagination. Offenses against every body orifice figure into the humor and Jesus, in a brief appearance, delivers a slur with a Western twang.

That said, the show’s creators clearly admire their plucky Mormons, and although they ridicule the particular beliefs of this 19th-century American Christian offshoot, you just know they wouldn’t hesitate to take a cheap shot at Moses parting the Red Sea or Mohammed splitting the moon should the occasion present itself. It’s smarter-than-thou college humor that exults in its own naughtiness, but that in its way enshrines the things it parodies. If you end up rooting for Elders Price and Cunningham, you’ll be in good company.

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Captions and Credits: Home page and top: Nic Rouleau, center, and members of the Broadway in Chicago cast of “The Book of Mormon.” Descending: Nic Rouleau as Elder Price, center, Ben Platt as Elder Cunningham, right, and cast of “The Book of Mormon on tour in Chicago. Elder Price (Nic Rouleau). Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt). Nabulungi (Syesha Mercado) and Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt.) A scene from the Broadway 2011  ‘Spooky Mormon Hell’ production number, which is replicated in Chicago. (Productions photos by Joan Marcus)

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