Andrew Rannells (center) and Josh Gad (right) encounter a local in “The Book of Mormon.”
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Book of Mormon
Book, music, and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York
(See video short below.)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone got famous by creating “South Park,” the game-changing Comedy Central show about crudely drawn cartoon grade-schoolers energetically talking dirty. Robert Lopez got famous for co-creating “Avenue Q,” the stage musical featuring puppets talking dirty. And now Parker, Stone, and Lopez have teamed up for something completely different: a Broadway musical about Mormon missionaries and their Ugandan would-be converts—all singing! all dancing! all talking dirty! “The Book of Mormon” is by far the most outrageous potty-mouthed tuner Broadway’s ever seen, and true to the makers’ form, it’s also a sweet and practically irresistible entertainment. It’s been staged to a polished sheen by Parker, a lifelong musical-theater geek, and Casey Nicholaw, who surpasses the snappy sparkling spoofiness he brought as director-choreographer to “Spamalot” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
Like those two shows, “The Book of Mormon” delights in referencing both generic musical-theater memes (the power ballad, the dream sequence, tap dancing) and specific shows. It’s “Forbidden Broadway: Bigger, Longer, Uncut” with a special interest in sending up a particularly beloved Disney hit. When two lads from Salt Lake City get shipped off to Uganda for their two-year missionary service, they discover that “Africa is not like ‘The Lion King’!” Instead of swaying savannas and exotically face-painted shamans, they encounter decrepit shantytown poverty, a population with an AIDS infection rate of 80 percent, and heavily armed warlords enforcing their own quixotic laws, including ritual genital mutilation for females. The first local expression Elder Price (Andrew Rannells, who gives a star-making performance) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad, a little one-note) learn is this show’s take-off on “Hakuna Matata,” called “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which the villagers cheerfully translate as “Fuck You, God” (“in the ass, mouth, and cunt,” the song adds).
In this grim setting, the other young missionaries have given up, but the newbies set about doing what they were trained to. “Here we go, door-to-door/Cuz God loves Mormons, and he wants some more.” Elder Price is the kind of high school star who has always gotten his way and is determined to win over the heathens through sheer charisma. But his schlubby partner turns out to be more adept at baptizing the unbelievers. Thanks to his vivid imagination (which at home usually manifests as pathological lying), Elder Cunningham improvises a version of “The Book of Mormon” that miraculously addresses burning issues that the Africans face. For instance, when he learns about the myth that the only cure for AIDS is intercourse with a virgin, and the only virgins around are infants, he locates the passage in the Mormon bible in which Joseph Smith faced the same problem and was given by God a “magic fuck frog.” And if he occasionally ropes in the Starship Enterprise and characters from “Star Wars” … well, he keeps the congregation attentive. Imagine his surprise, then, when church officials fly in to celebrate his success and are treated to a pageant in which the Ugandans play back the version they learned of “The Book of Mormon.”
This uproarious show-within-the-show, which manages to conjure the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” sequence from “The King and I” by way of “Fela!”, is one of the major highlights of the show, guaranteed to make you leave the theater singing “Joseph Smith, don’t fuck the baby…..” Let’s just say it will *not* be shown on the Tony Awards broadcast. Nor will the other most spectacular production number, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” an extravaganza with eye-popping costumes, skeletons hoisting Dunkin Donuts, and Hitler getting a blowjob. The musical score boggles between two modes. There are genre parodies that get tedious, playing out long after everybody’s gotten the joke (white boys singing “We are the tears of Nelson Mandela… Africans are African, but we are Africa”!). Nikki M. James is very charming as Nabalungi, Elder Cunningham’s unlikely love interest, but she gets stuck with a couple of overly sticky Disney-ingenue ballads. And then there are numbers that manage to carve out some original territory, such as “Turn It Off,” the celebration of emotional repression led by the closeted gay Elder McKinley (the excellent Rory O’Malley) that merges killer dancing with theatrical wit.
Much as I enjoyed “The Book of Mormon,” I can’t get on board with those calling it the best musical in years. Shows that spend so much time commenting on other shows wind up with a slightly second-hand feel to them, which is not the case with a truly original musical like “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” And though there’s a sincerely intended homiletic wrap-up at the ending—“We can doubt that God exists and still make paradise on earth”—you don’t walk away thoughtfully considering faith, redemption, and the hero’s journey. You walk away chortling at the outrageous jokes and quoting the dirty lines to your friends. I have to hand it to the “South Park” guys for tapping our apparently limitless capacity for the anarchic juvenile glee that comes from talking trash.