11:17 AM CST, November 15, 2012
If any show could make the case that you can have fun with absolutely anything in the oft-painful run of human experience — AIDS, genocide, genital mutilation, poverty, religion, "The Lion King" — then that show is "The Book of Mormon," the shrewd, remarkably well-crafted and wholly hilarious new Broadway musical from the creators of "South Park" and the composer of "Avenue Q."
Fans of Trey Parker and Matt Stone won't be surprised by the outrageous content and language — which surely goes further than any other musical in Broadway history — in this coming-of-age tale of an enthusiastic young Mormon missionary, whose fervent prayer to be sent to Orlando, his favorite city on earth, is answered with an assignment in war-torn Uganda and a partnership with the most inept and annoying Mormon sidekick in religious history. But it's still an eye-popping moment when a curtain at a musical comedy goes up on designer Scott Pask's locale of intense poverty, populated by an ensemble of African citizens who suffer from the kind of unspeakable — well, here, very much speakable and singable — horrors rarely even mentioned, let alone lampooned, on the streets of midtown Manhattan.
But, as shrewder "South Park" fans understand, Parker and Stone built their career on their mastery of tone, and their seemingly innate ability to understand when to push the limits to the breaking point and when to dance deftly away from painful details. They have long forged material as sweet as it is sour, and, especially in their movies ("South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut"), embraced the traditions of the Broadway musical even as they turned its milquetoast romanticism on its head.
In many ways, "The Book of Mormon" is an intensification — a culmination, really — of what "Monty Python's Spamalot" achieved, albeit signposted for a very different cultural generation.
"The Book of Mormon," which features not only the catchy songs of Robert Lopez (the opening doorbell number, "Hello," is a classic example) but also his clearly crucial help on the book, starts with a satirical, self-aware and dazzlingly self-confident comedic mind-set — honed and, crucially, licensed and secured in other media. But just as it starts to feel as if watching the "South Park" guys deconstruct the apparent illogicalities of Mormonism is starting to sound the same, one-sided note, Parker, Stone and Lopez engineer a very savvy twist in the narrative. This re-energizes the show early in the second act, focuses it more acutely on those "Avenue Q"-like themes of young people seeking out their purpose and propels it to a conclusion that leaves audience members feeling they've attended something weightier than a series of pointed laughs fired into a soft religious target.
By the end of a night more emotional than many will expect, the show is arguing the importance of finding a spiritual center, if not exactly embracing the doctrinal details of that most American of religions (and, as cooler heads may currently be observing in Salt Lake City, when you are the most American of religions, it could be seen as a badge of honor to be ridiculed on Broadway).
In many ways, the rich, liberal do-gooders of "We Are the World" (the object of a hilarious Act 2 takedown) come off worse than the collection of naive missionaries trying to save the world. And "The Book of Mormon" even makes a case that it takes those suffering real pain to understand the real role of religion in our lives. "South Park" was never friendly to pretentious baby boomers. Neither is its musical. Along the jolly way, "The Book of Mormon" throws in many inside jokes. A spoof Mormon re-enactment diorama (sourced in part, I suspect, on the reporting in Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven") is a nod to "Angels in America." A catchy, faux-African ditty, "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (you don't want to know the translation) is a hilariously profane takedown of the Disneyfied complacencies of "Hakuna Matata." And references to other Broadway musicals and stagings are sprinkled like little blessings throughout.
One can see the argument against this show — indeed, it plays out in your mind as you watch it. Some will find it juvenile. You could construct a case that it makes fun of real pain. You could build a better case that it has merely taken the over-familiar and pushed it further. But after you hold that trial in your head, between laughs, you ultimately end up dismissing the case. Casey Nicholaw, who directs and choreographs with the right note of apparent sincerity (Parker shares directing credit), was smart enough not to cast stars who would pull focus or undermine the crucial Everyman naivete of the two leads and the ensemble of missionaries. The clear, earnest tones of Andrew Rannells beautifully enrich the character Elder Price, whose journey to hell and back (and this hell involves Johnnie Cochran) is at the center of the yarn. Josh Gad (who played Barfee in "Spelling Bee" and affects a rather similar nerd savant here) is certainly a disquietingly annoying Elder Cunningham at the start, but he and the character redeem themselves just when it is becoming a problem. And Nikki M. James, as an African woman named Nabulungi (Gad's character, who can't get her name right, ends up calling her Nordstrom), creates a shrewd parody of the kind of romanticized African girl found in shows like "Once on This Island," which, when it comes to sharper truths for flailing generations, can't compete with "The Book of Mormon."
"The Book of Mormon" plays at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit bookofmormonbroadway.com.
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