‘The Book of Mormon’ laughs at Latter Day Saints, but they’re fine with that

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

Satire and religion tend to be a volatile combination.

The life of author Salman Rushdie was threatened because his satirical novel “The Satanic Verses,” has a central character who goes insane and believes he is the prophet Muhammad.

The guys in the comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus found their film “Life of Brian” about a man in Biblical times mistaken for Jesus by overeager acolytes  labeled as blasphemy by some Christian groups.

However, the musical “The Book of Mormon,” which pokes fun (sometimes quite pointedly) at the Church of Latter Day Saints, has been embraced, in a way, by the very Mormons they poke and prod with humor. In fact, the LDS has placed ads in some playbills, using the show as a marketing tool for the real “Book of Mormon.”

Some of the controversy was muted because of the reputation of the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, said Jacques C. Smith. Smith plays Mafala Hatimbi, the leader of the village in Uganda where most of the action takes place.

“The Book of Mormon” comes to The Palace Theater in Waterbury starting April 9.

“Many of the people who come know (Stone and Parker) are the creators of ‘South Park.’ And they know the type of humor to expect,” said Smith.

The traditional theatergoer may be shocked by the scatological humor crafted by Stone and Parker, said Smith. But, he said, “if they sit with an open mind” they will see the “overall message of the story is a message of good will.”

Smith saw the show after he was cast for his role. “I enjoyed it.”

Smith said he had read about the possibility of controversy surrounding “The Book of Mormon.” But he also knew it had considerable legs on stages across the country. It also had received a boatload of awards (including a Tony award for Best Musical and another for Best Original Score).

“It had to be worthy of the honors,” said Smith.

“The Book of Mormon” drives its humor from several comedic traditions, said Smith.

First and foremost, said Smith, the show is a satire.

Secondly, he said, “The Book of Mormon” taps into the laughter driven by parody.

“My character sings one of the most offensive songs on the surface, but it’s a send up of ‘Hakuna Matata’ (from ‘The Lion King’).  The song sets the groundwork for “pushing the envelope’ as the show progresses, said Smith.

Like many of the characters on stage, Mafala elicits laughter. But Smith said there also is an emotional core to him that helps drive the story and helps the character win over the audience.

Mafala is village elder and he works to protect that village. He also is the father of Nabalungi, the female lead. “She’s my family,” said Smith, and keeping her safe is “paramount.”

The audience is drawn to the father and daughter because they can see themselves in their story, said Smith. Both character have experienced hardship and they are working to get through that hardship. People can relate to their story, said Smith.

“It’s a great show to be part of,” said Smith.

After the curtain has closed, Smith said some audience members will stop him and say, “I didn’t expect to like it so much” or “I laughed so hard my face hurt.”

“I’m proud to be part of this show that pushes the envelope and brings joy to the audience,” said Smith.

“The Book of Mormon” comes to The Palace Theater, 100 East Main St., Waterbury from April 9 to 14 for eight performances. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. There are two matinees, Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Tickets are available at the box office, or by visiting palacetheaterct.org or by calling (203)346-2000. Tickets begin at $39.

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