|The Book of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus|
Let me cut to the chase. The Book of Mormon is the funniest, cleverest, most original and most crowd-pleasing musical I have seen since Urinetown a decade ago.
It’s also the raunchiest and most irreverent, if those things matter to you—though surely you shouldn’t be surprised, given that two of its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are best known for the long-running raunchy and irreverent animated television show, South Park, and the third, Robert Lopez, co-wrote the raunchy and irreverent Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q.
By the way, it’s OK if you are not a big fan of South Park the television show, which is not particularly geared toward a Broadway musical audience. The question is, did you like South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, the—yes—raunchy and irreverent musical movie from 1999 that Parker and Trey co-wrote? If so, you will probably also like The Book of Mormon, which, except for the aforementioned raunch and irreverence, is a good old-fashioned Broadway musical presented with great joy and polish by a uniformly strong cast, under the direction of Mr. Parker and Casey Nicholaw, the director and choreographer for Elf: The Musical and The Drowsy Chaperone, as well as choreographer for Spamalot.
I’ve got to say that I greatly enjoyed South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, and at least two of its songs stick in my mind to this day: "Blame Canada," which was nominated for an Academy Award even though its colorful language meant it couldn’t be sung at the Awards show exactly as written, and "What Would Brian Boitano Do?," a song that Mr. Boitano, the Olympic figure skating champion, must have appreciated since he now has a cooking show called What Would Brian Boitano Make?
The songs in The Book of Mormon are at least as much fun. Many of them parody or at least reference other songs with which you may be familiar, including a very funny variation on "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King but whose meaning is rather different from the “no worries” message of the Elton John/Tim Rice song from the Disney musical. Indeed, there are several references to The Lion King throughout The Book of Mormon, as well as tunes that riff off of numbers from Annie, Wicked and, most hilariously, from The King and I.
The story follows the adventures of Elder Price, a 19-year-old missionary-in-training who is about to embark on his first tour of duty on behalf of the church. Elder Price (Andrew Rannells, formerly of Jersey Boys and Hairspray, who here has incorporated a bit of Jim Carrey into his performance) is the star pupil. Everything is going his way, and he is convinced he will be sent to serve the Lord in his dream location—Orlando, Florida.
Much to his surprise, however, Elder Price is assigned to do his mission work in Uganda, partnered with the shlubbiest of the entire bunch, the dorky, overweight, daydreamer Elder Cunningham, wonderfully enacted by Josh Gad (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) as a pop culture film fanatic who references pretty much everything he says to Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings.
We join this mismatched pair as they meet up with their fellow Mormons in Uganda and take on the task of conversion and baptism. Meanwhile, the villagers are less concerned with the state of their souls than with the misery of their day-to-day existence (“I have maggots in my scrotum,” the tribal doctor informs Elder Cunningham, wondering how Mormonism will help him). The villagers are also being threatened with forced genital mutilation and other assorted acts of brutality by a self-declared revolutionary general (Brian Tyree Henry) and his band of thugs. With so much to deal with, it is not surprising they show little interest in the message the missionaries bring to them.
That is until Elder Cunningham begins to embellish the official line with his own tales, offering up an unusual treatment for AIDS and warning the villagers that they need to change their wicked ways, lest they “burn in the fiery pits of Mordor!”
Finally, here is one missionary who makes sense, and they begin to warm to this new religion. The funniest moments in the show come when the villagers take Elder Cunningham’s bits of advice and string them together to create a pageant depicting the founding of Mormonism, which they present with great exuberance to the Mission President (Lewis Cleale) who has come to check on how things are progressing.
Needless to say, since The Book of Mormon is truly an old-fashioned musical comedy at heart, all is resolved in the end and the audience leaves the theater in a happy, happy mood.
Hakuna Matata, indeed!
Come Tony Awards time, The Book of Mormon will be the musical to beat. The only question is, what can they possibly show on the televised broadcast without bleeping out every other word?
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