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Missionary Zeal

"The Book of Mormon" is a caricatured contrast between well-intentioned and gloriously naive first worlders confronting a cartoon of the Third World from the minds of "South Park" creators.

Gina Conroy
December 28, 2018

Politically incorrect? Definitely. Irreverent? Absolutely. Satirically funny? For sure. Profane? No doubt. Then why is The Book of Mormon, a musical comedy full of religious fervor and brash humor, loved by audiences everywhere and named “the best musical of the century” by The New York Times?

Connor Peirson, who plays Elder Cunningham, the naïve and awkward Mormon missionary, says one of the reasons the show is so popular is that it’s the “musical for musical lovers.”

The story follows a classic musical theme with the same elements found in shows like Oklahoma and The Sound of Music. But it has a very modern twist.

With its irreverent tones and outright blasphemy, some may say a modern twist might be putting it mildly. While this show doesn’t shy away from difficult topics like poverty, famine, AIDS, and homosexuality, it does offer audiences levity, hysterics, and surprising moments of warmth all wrapped inside a proselytizing show tune.

The Book of Mormon follows two Mormons on their first mission to Africa, the last place either of them expected to end up. While the devout Elder Price prayed for a mission to Orlando, not only has God not answered his prayers, but he’s partnered him with the unappealing Elder Cunningham, a compulsive liar who is as awkward and clumsy as Elder Price is charming.

“These two Mormon missionaries have prepped for missions all their life, but end up being sent to Uganda,” says Peirson. “They experience culture shock, something neither of them anticipated.”

Peirson, who’s been with the show for four years, yet only started playing the role of Elder Cunningham two years ago, says his character is someone people can relate to.

“He’s an oddball,” says Peirson. “He keeps missing the mark, and audiences relate to him.”

When Peirson meets audiences at the stage door, they tell him they really enjoyed the character. Although Peirson’s character is endearing, he admits there are elements of the show that can make people uncomfortable.

“Humor is the best way to talk about hard topics,” says Peirson, who believes comedy can create a comfortable atmosphere and doorway for conversation about difficult subjects. “If you make someone laugh, then hit them with hard questions, they’re more likely to talk about the important issues.”

This isn’t just some ruthless teardown of Mormons. It ridicules beliefs and the institution without mercy, but backs off on actual humans. The attacks are philosophical, not personal. In the end, all the missionaries are just a bunch of naive children trying to figure life out.

Despite the religious satire, The Book of Mormon is a pro-faith show at the core. The Mormon religion is used as a backdrop for exploration into the deeper message of faith that permeates all religions.

“It evokes self-examination as to why we believe what we believe,” says Peirson. And it’s the humor that allows people to question blind faith and asks some tough questions about the seemingly illogical things we believe.

“It generates conversations that people wouldn’t normally get into,” says Peirson, who admits the show can be shocking to the more devout, but says it all pays off in the punchline.

“[The Book of Mormon] is one of my favorite shows,” says theater-goer Billy Whala, who has seen the show three times. “It’s hilarious with great songs and a surprisingly wholesome point of view.”

Audiences could simply enjoy The Book of Mormon for what it is: a satirical, irreverent story told through song and dance in the style of Monty Python and South Park, and that would be OK. But audiences would miss the deeper message.

“Through the tests and trials encountered by the young missionaries, they take a deeper look and re-evaluate what they believe and why,” says Peirson. “It’s a show about friendship, perseverance, and faith.”

At its core, The Book of Mormon doesn’t condemn people of faith. On the contrary, it leaves audiences feeling if what they believe makes you a better and happier person, then it’s not only good for you, but for society as a whole.  

The Book of Mormon
Tulsa Performing Arts Center | Tulsa
Jan. 8-10: 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 11: 8 p.m.
Jan. 12: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
Jan. 13: 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m.