The Book of Mormon Lives Up to Its Hype
That The Book of Mormon is the most profane and foul-mouthed musical ever to hit Broadway should be expected, coming as it does from the famously foul-mouthed creators of Comedy Central's South Park. That it is also one of the funniest Broadway musicals of all time likewise should come as no surprise. But that The Book of Mormon is one of the best all around Broadway musicals in decades, well, that was a bit of revelation.
This is one show that lives up to its hype.
Created by South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone along with Robert Lopez (one half of the team behind the not quite as foul-mouthed Broadway smash Avenue Q), The Book of Mormon is nothing short of miraculous: a blasphemous, subversive swear-fest that mercilessly skewers both its subject matter and its medium without ever feeling mean. It is also one of the most lovingly polished musicals I have ever seen. Whatever you think of Parker and Stone and their sophomoric, scatological humor, their talent is immense and they are nothing if not professionals.
The story follows two young mismatched Mormon missionaries from their training center in Salt Lake City to their unlikely pairing on an African mission. Elder Price (Mark Evans) is a smug, self-assured, self-centered rising star who everybody, especially himself, expects big things from—think a young Mitt Romney, if Romney ultimately had the capacity for humility. Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) is his bumbling, tall-tale-spinning sidekick—you know the comic stereotype. Together, the two set off to convert an impoverished Ugandan village, only to find the challenges are nothing like what they were prepared for back in Utah.
This Africa is no Lion King (though they make the obligatory references). Impoverished, starving, plagued with AIDS, and suffering under the shadow of a local warlord who threatens young women with clitoral circumcision, the villagers find little use for the "all American" Mormon gospel—until a desperate Elder Cunningham starts customizing scripture to meet the local circumstances.
"Where in that book of yours does it say ANYTHING about having sex with a baby?!" a defiant villager asks. Elder Cunningham gamely improvises, and hilarity ensues. No, really, hilarity ensues, baby rape jokes and all, while Elders Cunningham and Price learn important lessons about their faith and themselves.
The obvious affection that Parker, Stone, and Lopez hold for their characters is a key to the show's success, but so too is their deep affection for musical theater, a medium they simultaneously lampoon and embrace. The authors make numerous musical-theater references, including a brilliantly obscene homage to the classic "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" scene from The King and I, in which the recently converted villagers act out a modified telling of the Joseph Smith story that includes frog-fucking, dysentery, and a celebratory orgy.
Much of the score is notably—and I presume, consciously—derivative. In addition to the show-stopping Lion King send-up "Hasa Diga Eebowai," you might detect musical references to a number of your favorite show tunes, including some lesser-known Stephen Sondheim numbers and a whole helluva a lot of Little Shop of Horrors. Indeed, one of my favorite numbers, "Sal Tlay Ka Siti"—in which the dewy-eyed young villager Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware) longingly sings of "The most perfect place on earth/Where flies don't bite your eyeballs/And human life has worth"—is more than just inspired by Little Shop's "Somewhere That's Green." The two songs are twins, sharing similar plot development roles, identical comedic concepts, and even a number of familiar musical phrases. It is impossible that Parker, Stone, and Lopez weren't aware of the similarities.
But that's okay. All art is derivative. What makes The Book of Mormon stand out is how well it is executed at every level of production, from the book and score, to the staging and choreography, to the sets and costumes, to the heroic vocal and orchestral arrangements by Stephen Oremus and Larry Hochman. Really. You never quite realize how critical a musical arrangement can be until you're working with lyrics like "When God fucks you in the butt/Fuck God back right in his cunt!" It's one thing to have a funny idea and a catchy tune in your head, but it's the masterful arrangements and choreography (by codirector Casey Nicholaw) that ultimately sell these songs, transforming a relatively cliché musical score into a new Broadway classic.
And, oh yeah, a top-notch cast performing these numbers doesn't hurt.
I can't compare the stage performances to the original Broadway cast, but this first national touring company includes a broadly talented ensemble that more than earned its perfunctory Seattle standing ovation. Evans shines during the show-defining anthem "I Believe," while O'Neill makes up for a slightly sub-Broadway singing voice with his impeccable comic timing. But I was particularly struck by the lovely Ware, who plays Nabulungi with the perfect mix of innocence and sexuality, and who owns a voice that could make her a Broadway star. It's hard to define what stage presence is, but she has it.
That said, audience members of other persuasions will surely thrill to the young, all-male Mormon dancing chorus, their sexual ambiguity highlighted by Nicholaw's Broadway-on-steroids choreography. "This is very gay," my daughter leaned in and whispered to me during the very gay "Turn It Off." She meant it admiringly, as opposed to her concise reviews of Saving Aimee ("This is very religious") and Oklahoma! ("This is incredibly racist").
I'm never sure what to do when reviewing musical theater for The Stranger, which, let's be honest, is not exactly the core demographic for the 5th Avenue or the Paramount. So I try to straddle that line between what I like and what audiences like. But this is one musical that I can unreservedly endorse for Stranger readers. Which is too bad, because but for 20 tickets that are being lotteried off for $25 two and a half hours before each show, The Book of Mormon has been sold out for months.
Better pray for its return.