By BRADY McCOMBS
of The Associated Press
The audience cheered wildly as the Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” began, with the show’s gleefully naive missionaries singing in front of a backdrop of the Salt Lake City skyline and Mormon temple that resembles the real one just two blocks away.
They laughed loudly as the jokes played out, many touching on Mormon lingo and culture that is intimately familiar in Utah. Some of the most raucous applause came during a scene when an African character sings, “Salt Lake City, the most perfect place on Earth.” At the conclusion, attendees at the Capitol Theater crowd gave the actors a standing ovation.
Despite the jokes and jabs that create a caricature of Mormon beliefs, there were no protests outside and no mass walkouts during opening night. The playbill did include three advertisements from the Mormon church, including a picture of a smiling man with the words, “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”
The audience included a cross-section of non-Mormons, ex-Mormons and some practicing Latter-day Saints like Omar Ledezma Soto, a student at Mormon-owned BYU. He drew attention by coming dressed as a missionary, wearing a white shirt, tie and the name tag he wore when he was an actual missionary. He said he knew other BYU students who were planning to attend other showings.
“The humor is crude and offensive, but I don’t think it’s meant to attack or belittle Mormons,” said Soto. “It’s just a means to talk about the silly situations we put ourselves in. That’s why I think this is so funny and lethargic and freeing to me.”
The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame, weren’t at the show but told The Associated Press this week that bringing the show to Salt Lake City feels like validation and also brings the creative process full circle.
“It feels like a really cool thing that it finally gets to play Salt Lake City,” Stone said. “It just feels very much like it’s coming home.”
They were hopeful that the show’s jokes would get even bigger laughs in a crowd likely to be more familiar with Mormon culture than most audiences. “It’s like playing ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ to a bunch of Jews,” Parker said.
That certainly seemed to be the case, as audience howled at jokes about Mormon beliefs, practices and idiosyncrasies. “It pokes fun without being mean,” said Eric Kriss, of Draper, after the show.
Two hours before the opening, about 100 people lined up in a ticket lottery, a group that included ex-Mormon Brandon Haden. The 26-year-old theater teacher, hoped to see the show again after attending a production in Los Angeles, but he said his parents have no plans to attend. (Prices range from $26-$160, not including fees).
“My parents said they wouldn’t come see something that makes fun of their religion, which I totally get,” Haden said, adding, “I don’t think they make any like sacred, doctrinal jokes, they just poke fun at the stereotypes.”
He didn’t win tickets, but 24-year-old Kate Hickam did.
Hickam, who isn’t Mormon, had seen the show in Denver but was anxious to watch the hometown crowd’s reaction. “They have so many inside jokes that Utahans will appreciate,” Hickam said.
Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been quiet about the musical over the years, repeating a one-line statement that has now become synonymous with the show. “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ,” it reads.
Some curious Latter-day Saints may go to see what all the fuss is about during the run in Salt Lake City, but most will probably turn the other cheek and let the state’s non-Mormons revel in the fun, said Scott Gordon, president of a volunteer organization that supports the church called FairMormon.
Gordon said he has mixed feelings about a musical. It has brought extra attention to Mormonism, and most Latter-day Saints can take some ribbing. But he said, “I just wish it didn’t go so far.”
Parker and Stone said they’ve never received any blowback from Mormon leaders or church members, which they say proves a theme that carries through the musical about Mormons being so darn polite all the time. In a way, they said they think church members might have appreciated the extra attention.
“I think it legitimizes them,” Stone said. “You’re not really real until somebody makes fun of you and makes a big Broadway show about you. Then you’re really, really part of the American fabric.”