In search of God & laughter

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©2016 Joan Marcus

The Book of Mormon Company – The Book of Mormon (c) Joan Marcus 2016 RYAN BONDY (ELDER PRICE) CODY JAMISON STRAND (ELDER CUNNINGHAM) CANDACE QUARRELS (NABULUNGI)

The boundary-breaking Book of Mormon, winner of 9 Tony Awards including Best Musical, will be playing at the new Hancher Auditorium Oct. 11-16.

By Claire Dietz 

[email protected]

Hello. My name is Sister Dietz. And I would like to share with you the MOST AMAZING THING.

Book of Mormon will say “Hello” to Hancher on Oct. 11, as cast members spend a week in Iowa City to put on the show that won “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker — responsible for Book’s score, libretto, and script — the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2011.

The musical follows a pair of mismatched missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as they are sent to Uganda to help spread the word of God. However, true to Stone’s and Parker’s idea, all piety goes out the window when they touch down and begin a journey that sees them encounter war-lords, love, frogs, and purple-sequined vests.

Like Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, the world of Book is rendered in large part through the use of backdrops, which clue the audience in as to whether they are currently in Florida, Utah, or Uganda. Props and any other sort of set design are secondary and only function to embellish the world created by the massive hangings.

The backdrops themselves serve to illuminate only the most stereotypical aspects of each location: Salt Lake City is represented as the sprawling, idyllic utopia the church thinks it to be, while Uganda is shown as a fiery, war-torn wasteland.

The country’s portrayal can be traced back to the one-dimensional depictions seen in blockbuster Hollywood films from the last decades: landscapes littered with mud huts, small villages, and unfiltered drinking water coming from holes in the ground. The musical seems to play ironically on these stereotypical portrayals and is heavily conscious of the latent ignorance contained therein. For example: When the missionaries first arrive in Uganda, they encounter a man dragging a dead animal across the stage, seemingly a critique of the West’s gung-ho attitude toward viewing any other cultural as “primitive.”

When the show débuted in 2011, it was met with some controversy and push back from the members of the Mormon church. In fact, once the show began selling out, Mormon officials purchased advertising space in playbills to direct audience members to the actual church’s website. Despite the controversy, however, the musical went on to win nine Tonys at that year’s awards, including Best Musical and Best Book.

UI theater Professor John Cameron called the musical a “dark little joy.”

“It’s in the tradition of all comic musicals,” he said. “It is well-written for what it is, and the music is good, and it’s very funny. You do have to recognize that the humor is … Well, the comedy is very edgy, sexual, and dark.”

Cameron called it a part of the genre of burlesque comedy, something that won’t seem to “go away” as much as some would like it to.

“It’s a comedy of sex, bodily functions, and attacking the establishment,” he said. “It’s very much in the tradition of theater, and part of the reason theater gets in trouble sometimes [is] it plays on the edge, it confronts the standard.”

The music itself is reminiscent of many of Broadway’s most famous songs, causing the tunes to sound hauntingly familiar to the experienced ear. Perhaps the most apt comparison is “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” in the first act; the chord progressions and crescendos bear a striking resemblance to “The Wizard and I” from Wicked.

What sets the music in Book apart, though, is that it is designed to make the audience laugh. If a line lands well, there is even the risk that some of the attendees miss it because those who heard it are already roaring with deafening laughter.

Hancher Programming Director Jacob Yarrow was eager to bring what he called the “Musical of the Century” to Iowa City, now that Hancher can once again accommodate a show of this size. Before the completion of its new auditorium, the organization struggled to find a way to continue delivering the caliber of programming people expected from it.

“We worked really hard to match artists and audiences to the best possible places for them,” Yarrow said. “[We tried] to interact and create great experiences in whatever places it was going to be.”

Daxton Bloomquist, who plays Elder McKinley (and, in one very brief scene, the angel Moroni) on tour, began his time as part of the Book of Mormon cast in 2011, as a swing member — an understudy for the ensemble — in the original Broadway production.

Bloomquist first made an appearance in his current principal role in 2014. He originally auditioned to be the understudy for McKinley in the Broadway production but was instead chosen to be the principal actor for the touring show.

Since Book is in the tradition of burlesque comedy — a genre often recognized for its laugh-out-loud hilarity and undeniable raunch — it provides a unique set of challenges for the actors in  the show, namely, the requirement to keep a straight face.

“For the Mormon boys, it’s about being happy and smiling through it all,” Bloomquist said. “In the show, you have to act like this is all very important and serious. Because I think the comedy of the show is in not knowing you’re in the show … the comedy comes from being serious.”

Bloomquist’s favorite moment comes when McKinley performs “Turn it Off” with the rest of the brothers; he said he gets chills every time he even talks about it.

Although he has played McKinley for two years now, he still learns something new every day from his character, he said.

“I learned it’s OK to be yourself,” he said. “I think we have things we all aren’t proud of … And when we embrace things we see as faults, we see they are our most beautiful attributes. When I came to McKinley, I was very scared of things, and when I leave McKinley, I think I will be a much braver person.”

While Bloomquist’s character doesn’t go through as dramatic changes on stage as some of that of his costars, the audience can see that at least McKinley grows to accept himself.

“I think that’s something we all want to do; to accept ourselves and where we are,” he said. “And [know] it’s OK to be different; it’s better to be different. That what’s makes you special.”

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