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    Stage review

    ‘The Book of Mormon’: a testament to song, dance, and lunacy

    Mark Evans, as Elder Price, sings “I Believe’’ to a warlord played by Derrick Williams.
    Joan Marcus
    Mark Evans, as Elder Price, sings “I Believe’’ to a warlord played by Derrick Williams.

    The tricky thing about being an iconoclast is that you can turn around one day and find you’ve become an icon yourself. It can get a mite awkward when, to paraphrase Pogo, we have met the establishment and he is us.

    That’s more or less what has happened to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. After their taboo-toppling ways on Comedy Central’s “South Park’’ made them rich and famous, they ventured into the more decorous arena of the Broadway musical, collaborating with Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q’’) to create “The Book of Mormon’’ — and topple any remaining taboos.

    The show didn’t just win a whopping nine Tony Awards in 2011, including best musical. No, “The Book of Mormon’’ became a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, a sell-your-soul-for-a-ticket juggernaut whose appeal extended well beyond the usual musical-theater crowd, attracting audiences who wouldn’t know Auntie Mame from Uncle Vanya.


    Its success triggered a bit of backlash, including a blistering “Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking’’ sketch that called the show “The Book of Moron’’ and depicted Parker and Stone as a couple of shameless greedheads who boasted in song that “To murder good taste is our mission.’’

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    Now Bostonians — or those able to score pricey tickets, anyway — finally have a chance to see for themselves what all the fuss is about. The national touring production of “Mormon’’ has settled in at the Boston Opera House, presented by Broadway in Boston. Was it worth the wait? Oh yeah. Does good taste indeed get murdered? Absolutely.

    At its most inspired moments, this production of “Mormon’’ reaches a state of giddy delirium that sweeps the audience along in its wake. Directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw, with knee-pumping choreography by Nicholaw that might be the single funniest thing about the show, “Mormon’’ is that rare musical that doesn’t weaken in Act 2. In fact, some of the show’s strongest numbers — “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,’’ “I Believe,’’ and “Tomorrow is a Latter Day’’ — arrive after intermission.

    A scorched-earth satire where nothing is sacred or off-limits — be forewarned, there is something in this show to offend just about everyone — “Mormon’’ follows a pair of young Mormon missionaries, Elder Price (Mark Evans) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), as they journey to an impoverished village in Uganda, intent on converting the residents.

    But the villagers find it hard to focus on spiritual matters when they have pressing temporal concerns to deal with, such as a ruthless warlord with an unprintable name. Pretty soon, Elder Price — who had previously been the picture of self-confidence, convinced he was marked for greatness — is undergoing a spiritual and emotional crisis of his own. Meanwhile, it is an affair of the heart that preoccupies Elder Cunningham: He is smitten with the village leader’s daughter, Nabulungi, played by Samantha Marie Ware.

    Joan Marcus
    From left: Phyre Hawkins, Mark Evans, and Christopher John O’Neill in “The Book of Mormon.’’

    As Elder Price, Evans is outstanding. From start to finish, his performance is loaded with wit, polish, physical ingenuity, and supple vocalizing in such numbers as the preeningly egotistical “You and Me (But Mostly Me’’).

    O’Neill, who is making his professional theater debut, lacks the indelible comic presence and timing Josh Gad brought to the role of Elder Cunningham on Broadway, so this schlubby, insecure character doesn’t generate the laughs he should in Act 1. But O’Neill grows in assurance and likability as the evening wears on; he is particularly winning in “Baptize Me,’’ an innuendo-laden duet with Ware.

    As for Ware, she is exceptionally good as Nabulungi. While nailing all the comic moments, she brings an aching poignancy to her rendition of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,’’ where Nabulungi gives voice to her dream of a better life.

    Beyond the principals, “Mormon’’ needs a topnotch ensemble to really work, and this production has one. Standouts include Grey Henson as Elder McKinley, who leads other missionaries in a tap-dancing ode to emotional repression titled “Turn It Off’’; Derrick Williams as the warlord; and Kevin Mambo as Mafala Hatimbi, the village leader.

    For all of its many, many raunchy moments, this is, at heart, a sweet-natured show. And for all of its impudence, the reality is that “Mormon’’ is positively bursting with affection for the old-fashioned Broadway musical, an institution it does as much to revitalize as to upend. The establishment never had it so good.

    Don Aucoin can be reached at