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“Book of Mormon” is good, dirty fun

Updated: January 22, 2013 6:24AM



“Is it okay to laugh?” asked a businessman pal of mine, saddled with perhaps more social conscience than is healthy, at intermission of the Chicago premiere of “The Book of Mormon” Wednesday.

I told him what struck me as soon as I sat down in the Bank of America Theatre — that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are formally known, bought not one, not two, but three full-page ads in the musical’s Playbill, not bitterly denouncing the production for the exuberant fun it has with their unfamiliar beliefs, but spinning off its success. (“You’ve seen the play...” reads one, “Now read the book.”)

So if they can take it, I said, anyone can.

Though you might think twice before actually trying to follow their advice. I happen to have a copy of the 1830 Book of Mormon scripture on my office shelf, and let’s just say it’s heavy lifting. (“And it came to pass, when Alma had heard these words, he wrote them down that he might have them and that he might judge the people of that church according to the commandments of God. And it came to pass that Alma went and judged those that had been...” well, you get the idea.)

I’d go to the musical first. “The Book of Mormon” is a definite must-see, if not quite a pivotal, culturally-important musical like “Hair” or “A Chorus Line,” then without question one of those rare, razor-sharp popular entertainments like “Cats” or “Wicked” that play forever, with good reason: the songs are funny or poignant or both, the story, a clash of cultures — whitebread Utah missionaries meet African villagers — is irresistible.

I’m going to give “Book of Mormon” the full treatment during the frozen slough of January. But a few words are apt now, since it’ll be playing to packed houses until then and people are wondering what they’re in for.

“Can I take my kids?” is another question I hear a lot, and the honest answer is: it depends on how upset their parents will be at the thought of exposing them to dirty words they’re already familiar with (albeit in heretofore unimagined combinations involving God). It’s a sweet, human message wrapped in a carapace of filth, and if you let yourself be bothered by the latter, you’ll miss the former. I know a South Side minister has already dully complained about the portrait of Africans, which depicts Ugandans as poor, suffering from AIDS and plagued by warlords, which is pretty much the case. I’d point out that just as the Mormons realize that this lampoon stokes interest in their religion — and as someone who first learned the Easter story from “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” I can vouch for the ability of Broadway musicals to convey the specifics, if not the belief, of faiths — so offended African-Americans should ask themselves how many Chicagoans will be contemplating current events in Uganda without seeing “The Book of Mormon”?

Me, I’ve already listened to the soundtrack dozens of times, so seeing the production onstage was like a trip to Lourdes. The biggest shock for me is that audiences would embrace something so smart and transgressive. Since many public relations sorts will see the play, I hope they meditate on the marketing genius of Mormon officialdom not getting their magic underwear in a knot over this, as opposed to, oh, the Scientologists, who react to those who dare suggest they’re a scary cult with exactly the heavy-handed menace you would expect from a scary cult. Christian Scientists, if they’re smart, will send Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures to “The Book of Mormon” creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, who took a bow Wednesday, just in case they’re looking to do a sequel.

Lyric Opera Contest Details

If you’re an opera fan and attend “The Book of Mormon,” one condescending thought that I guarantee will flit through your head, at least once if not repeatedly, is: “Hrumph, miked.”

The singers are amplified, which, to we music purists, isn’t quite as bad as lip-synching to a tinny tape, but sure isn’t the pure unboosted human voices you’ll hear at an opera like “Hansel and Gretel,” the Humperdinck classic 100 lucky winners of the Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric contest will enjoy this Jan. 11.

But wait, there’s more. New this year will be a cocktail party before the opera, at the excellent Rivers Restaurant nearby, which will save me wandering around the Civic Opera House aisles, greeting people randomly, plus add the lure of drinks for those inclined, which always make high culture easier to bear.

Readers have been asking for details, and I have a few. The contest runs from Dec. 23 to Jan. 6. Would-be winners can sign up online at suntimes.com/win and read the complicated legalese there after the 23rd. If you want to mail your entry in, the address will be printed in a big display ad the newspaper is running Sunday, and you can find it there, and I’ll try to print the address in my Sunday column, assuming I can lay my hands on it. Good luck.



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