‘The Book of Mormon’: An engaging laugh and a half

Photo by Julieta Cervantes | THE BOOK OF MORMON North American Tour | Keke Nesbitt (far left), Sam Nackman (far right) and 'The Book of Mormon' ensemble (center) created a charming satire in their depiction of Mormon mission work.

Emma Polen | Editor-in-Chief 

A production that would “blow God’s freaking mind,” “The Book of Mormon” returns to the national stage for a faithful revival of the classic 2011 musical comedy.

This week, “The Book of Mormon” marked its latest stop on national tour with a visit to Pittsburgh, presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, a season-special part of the 2023-2024 PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series.

Elder Price (Sam McLellan) and Elder Cunningham (Sam Nackman) take off to a remote village in central Africa to spread the Good Word, but their attempts are halted by the corrupt tyrant General Butt [Expletive] Naked and a general lack of enthusiasm from the locals. However, a relationship between Elder Cunningham and the young African woman Nabulungi (Keke Nesbitt) quickly turns things around, as does Cunningham’s knack for imaginative storytelling.

McLellan does a good job acting as a Mormon progressively losing his faith, while Nackman lives up to the original Elder Cunningham, played by Josh Gad, with breathy revelations, soaring vibrato and quirky dance moves.

Nesbitt’s performance as Nabulungi maintains a level of masterful singing, even in her first solo of the show, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” where the entire premise is that she mishears Salt Lake City and believes that this city will serve as paradise for her village. Nesbitt, a Penn State University grad making her national tour debut, sings quietly and wistfully, reflecting the character’s hope in reaching this perfect place.

The musical comedy is “something incredible,” but not for the faint of heart. There are a fair amount of f-bombs, along with other inappropriate allusions. However, the crude language and poking-fun at Mormonism, in a show about Mormons, add to the overall comedic nature of the exactly-two-and-a-half-hour-long production.

From the lights to the choreography and costumes, every aspect of “The Book of Mormon” at the Benedum contributed to the point of the story – that it’s not supposed to be taken seriously.

Musicians in the live orchestra and the stage lighting turned on and off perfectly together throughout the two acts, in a sort of abrupt story transition, similar to the smash cut that marks many cinematic comedies. Lighting was used for another comedic advantage during “Turn It Off,” when the Mormon missionary ensemble seamlessly changed into sparkling pink suit vests in seconds while the stage was black.

The scenic backdrops that came down from the ceiling even interacted with the characters on stage. During “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” Elder Price confidently proclaims that he will be the one to convert the people of Uganda to Mormonism where all others have failed. During the musical number, a blue screen rolled down to eliminate all distractions from Price.

Even the movement of set items between scenes held humor. When Elders Price and Cunningham arrive at their African missionary house, and settle down under the covers for their first night in Uganda, the bed zooms off the stage, with the two Mormon missionaries on board.

The Mormon ensemble gave off major “Kenergy” through their identical white collared shirt, black tie and dress pants costumes along with dazzlingly in-sync dance moves. While the cast sings phenomenally, they were all spectacular dancers as well, playing up the carbon copy fashion of their missionary identities.

With all of these comedic elements within “The Book of Mormon,” were there any parts of the story that the audience was supposed to take seriously? The answer: no, but “The Book of Mormon” is a show that’s over dramatic. And the cast overdoes it well.

The cast made sure to contribute plenty of false sincerity, or at least make the audience “just believe” that they thought what they were doing was serious. Elder McKinley and Moroni (the All-American Angel), both played by Sean Casey Flanagan, have plenty of sass mixed into their important roles leading the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Again, the Mormon ensemble did a stellar job at seeming genuine in their belief that they’ve become one with the people of Uganda, while also making people laugh at the ridiculousness of their dialogue.

The opening night audience took plenty of opportunities to laugh out loud during the show, often reaching levels of reaction that rivaled the voices mic’d up on stage. Even a reactive “Oh” was heard trickling across the concert hall when Elder Price said he wasn’t Elder Cunningham’s best friend to his crestfallen missionary partner.

Join in the fun and go see “The Book of Mormon,” which will be showing at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday. Student tickets can be purchased at the university student tickets page of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust website (www.TrustArts.com), or by using the promotional code 2324DUQ at checkout.