The Book of Mormon
What: Broadway touring adult musical
Where: Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St.
When: Saturday-Oct. 20. Showtimes: 8 p.m. Saturday; 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15-17; 8 p.m. Oct. 18; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Oct. 19; 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Oct. 20
Tickets: $40 to $160
Information: 402-345-0606, toll-free 866-434-8587, ticketomaha.com or in person at the Holland Center box office, 13th and Douglas Streets
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When it comes to comedy based on religion, the line between humor hell and heaven is anything but black and white.
That's what some area Mormons and believers of other faiths had to say as the Broadway smash-hit musical “The Book of Mormon” heads to the Orpheum Theater on Saturday for an 11-show run.
“The Book of Mormon” frequently uses profane language as it pokes fun at everything from stereotypes of clean-cut missionaries to the history and teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The show won nine 2011 Tony Awards, including best musical, while also endorsing the value of religious belief in everyday lives. An underlying sweetness to the show's message caught many by surprise.
What's funny and what's offensive defies definition. It can hinge on context and delivery. It varies greatly from one believer to another — and sometimes depends on whose ox is being gored.
“To me, it's personal,” said Rosie Zweiback, a member of Temple Israel. “I know what crosses the line for Jews, but not what's too far for a Catholic joke or a Mormon joke.”
Two things seem clear: Offending with religious humor can be an incendiary line to cross. And the writers of “The Book of Mormon” are out to redraw that line.
Writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the outrageous animated TV series “South Park,” and Robert Lopez, co-creator of the profane puppet musical “Avenue Q,” are not just irreverent, they're determined equal-opportunity offenders.
“South Park” episodes have included jaw-dropping takes on Scientology, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and, yes, Mormonism. “Avenue Q,” which Lopez has said was inspired by “South Park,” pokes fun at gays, ethnic minorities, Internet porn addicts, slackers and confused 20-somethings.
“The Book of Mormon” takes its name from what Mormons believe is another testament of Jesus, sacred in the way the Bible's Old and New Testaments are considered sacred.
The play's story centers on two present-day mismatched missionaries, one a slovenly misfit and the other a perky perfectionist. The two are sent to a remote Ugandan village. Their confidence and idealism are tested by a populace ravaged by poverty, hunger and an AIDS epidemic.
“Read the book if you want to know what we believe,” said Sharla Kay Behan, public affairs spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nebraska. “You won't learn much about the church going to the musical. This is a caricature of our beliefs. Everyone understands that.”
Behan said the LDS church encourages followers to avoid entertainment with a lot of nudity or profanity. Efforts to find an area Mormon who had seen “The Book of Mormon” and was willing to discuss it came up empty.
Michael Weston, Mormon mission president in Omaha, said he had talked to church members in other parts of the country who had seen it.
“My general impression is that it's not a fair representation of our church,” he said. “It makes light of sacred things and of our missionaries.”
Jason Bagley, an Omaha day care operator and a lifelong Mormon, said he had researched the play online, including lyrics to several songs. He and his wife, Eunice, a Mormon convert, watched Omaha native Andrew Rannells sing “I Believe” on television at the Tony Awards. His wife, he said, was rolling with laughter at the lyrics.
“I thought it was a bit rude,” he said. “It's joking about random things we believe.”
He said he didn't find anything untrue in the lyrics, though some things were taken out of context. Non-Mormon friends told him the show has a good message about faith. He said he was glad the writers didn't just make fun of Mormons and call it a day.
“It's a popular show,” he said. “People want to see it. And any exposure to the church is an opportunity for discussion, to tell our friends what we believe, to give more context to the joke being made.”
Mary Eileen Andreasen, director of adult formation at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Parish, said she would see the show only if Mormons say it's fabulous. “Late Nite Catechism,” she said, pokes fun at Catholicism with warmth. She takes friends to give them an idea of how she grew up.
“People do poke fun at Catholics,” she said. “But it's one thing to laugh at yourself and another when someone else does it. All of us have been through some kind of discrimination, and there have certainly been times I felt Catholic-bashing. The world is crazy enough without poking fun at belief systems.”
Fa'iz Rab, former spokesman for the Islamic Center of Omaha, said he'd seen parts of “The Book of Mormon” on YouTube and thought it was funny.
“I talked to one Mormon friend, and he thought it was funny,” he said. “I can easily see how people would be offended by it or also might find it funny.”
In general, he said, comedy can make what people would consider unusual beliefs more familiar and palatable.
“Within the Muslim community, we find it funny how people may be too extreme or too lax,” he said. “We tend to poke fun at the extremes.”
Zweiback said she's not offended by Jewish jokes she's heard on “South Park.” She said there are so many great Jewish comedians, “we sort of own Jewish humor. They're comfortable because you know the person who wrote it is a proud Jew.”
Joan Rivers, she said, might get away with a Holocaust joke. Another comedian, no.
“Humor is powerful and delightful,” she said. “It doesn't have to be hateful. To me, that's easy to see the difference.”
Rab, who went to Catholic school here, said there's a Jewish school in England where half the students are Muslim. Many beliefs and values in world religions are similar, he said.
“With this 'Book of Mormon' thing, people will be looking at their own faiths and saying to themselves, 'I wonder what people would be seeing in my religion that's funny.' ”