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theatre review

Christopher John O’Neill, far right, reprises his role as Elder Cunningham, a fabulist who embellishes Mormon theology with false idols.Joan Marcus

Why don't the producers of The Book of Mormon want The Globe and Mail to review their show on its current visit to Toronto? I don't know. The answer I got back was, "No comment."

It's not just us, mind you: Theatre critics have not been invited back to the hit 2011 musical from the creators of South Park and composer Robert Lopez (Let It Go) in any of the cities to which the tour has returned for a second time.

By contrast, consider that Wicked – now in its second decade of existence and currently passing through Toronto for the fourth time – invited reviewers to consider the show again last week despite the fact that many are probably sick of it at this point.

Perhaps The Book of Mormon's producers simply wanted the $130 I plunked out to get a seat in the orchestra on Wednesday night. They've certainly proved masters of wringing every dollar out of the show in New York: It pulled in $1.5-million (U.S.) last week – with a top ticket price of $477, the highest on Broadway by far. (Even without the exchange rate, you're getting a deal in Toronto.)

In any case, there are plenty of reasons for a critic (or an audience member) to return to take another look at The Book of Mormon – which tells the tale of two mismatched Mormon missionaries, who question their faith after being dispatched to ring doorbells in Uganda. A theatre production is not a film – it changes and evolves.

For example, this Toronto stop marks Gavin Creel's return to the tour as Elder Price, after opening the West End production and winning an Olivier Award for his performance there.

Creel, whose default demeanour suggests dissatisfaction, brings a different tone to the part of this young super-Mormon, disappointed when he discovers that the Heavenly Father has not answered his prayers and sent him on a mission to Orlando – and even more disappointed when he discovers that Africa is not one bit like The Lion King.

Creel is less arrogantly confident as Elder Price than, for example, the Tony-winning originator of the role, Andrew Rannells, was. Instead of being a swaggering overachiever, he seems a disgruntled striver; this eliminates some of the sharp-edged schadenfreude of the humour in the show at his expense, but makes him easier to root for – and his transformation into sardonic skeptic seem more natural.

It was also worthwhile to catch up with Christopher John O'Neill as Elder Cunningham, who plays Price's mission companion – a friendless fabulist who embellishes his church's theology with false idols gleaned from pop culture such as Darth Vader and Uhura.

A sketch comedian who made his professional stage debut on the tour, O'Neill has learned how to conserve his comic energy over the past 18 months, so he no longer ends up breathless during the act one finale, Man Up, which sees him embrace his storytelling skills in an effort to help the villagers defy a local warlord.

The downside to this is that, at times, O'Neill's performance now seems a bit canned – particularly his nervous laugh, which begins to feel forced like an overused sitcom catchphrase.

The bromantic chemistry between his Elder Cunningham and Creel's Price has yet to quite fuse entirely, as well. But The Book of Mormon is a show that – unlike the last big saviour of musical comedy to feature a dancing Hitler, The Producers – is less dependent on specific actors, with stronger material that allows for interpretation. Also now in the touring cast are a wiry Peter Mitchell as closeted Elder McKinley (very truthful) and Alexandra Ncube as Nabulungi (unusually affecting).

As always, The Book of Mormon, hilarious as it undeniably is, tries to have it both ways. It wrings big, politically incorrect laughs out of shocking references to the Ugandans' struggles, which range from AIDS to forced female circumcision to dysentery. At the same time, it seeks to appeal to an audience's sentimentality about its Westerners, pulling on heartstrings with Elder Cunningham's rejection by his father. In short, you're manipulated to care more about the white characters' minor problems than the black characters' major ones.

And yet, at a time when more and more artists seem to entirely avoid difficult topics for fear of being shot down by the online outrage machine, The Book of Mormon seems more daring and refreshing now than it did even four years ago at its premiere. Somehow creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have found the sweet spot in their reflection on the evils of the world – a comfortable seat somewhere between outrageous and outraged.

The main reason for a critic to return to The Book of Mormon, right now, whether invited or not: Unlike when the show last opened in Toronto in the spring of 2013, audiences can actually still get a ticket for this most hyped of musical comedies. So this time, when I say the show lives up to the hype and is worth getting tickets for, you actually can – whether the producers care if I say so or not.

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