BOTTOM LINE: The Book of Mormon exceeds expectations (in production value as well as use of expletives).
I am a sucker for musical theatre and all the joyously cheesy emotions it can generate. I am a bigger sucker for musical comedy that can elicit sincere sentimentality while making me giggle. Now, when a funny and endearing musical comedy’s foundation is actually a sophisticated underbelly that propels an intellectual agenda capable of enlightening its audience without pandering…well, I am simply smitten. And this is how I feel about The Book of Mormon.
I want to hug Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, and director Casey Nicholaw, for breathing much-needed life into Broadway, which has been consistently humdrum as of late. Jaded theatergoers will feel invigorated at this lively, original musical with loads of heart. Anyone with an affinity for the type of humor utilized on South Park will delight in this inappropriate language and the totally incongruous spectacle that surrounds it. I hesitate to oversell, but I think I’m too late.
The reason The Book of Mormon succeeds is because of its duality: it’s crass, it’s bawdy, it’s politically incorrect in the most outlandish of ways, it’s polarizing – and yet its message is so universally sincere and important that it almost feels like it could come from the Dalai Lama himself…probably phrased differently.
The Book of Mormon isn’t really a forum to degrade Mormonism, although it does mock the hell out this new-ish “American” religion. Rather, it uses Mormonism as the lens through which we can look at all religion, and the widespread ridiculousness that comes with whatever you happen to believe in. But it’s not an Atheists-only event, because the takeaway isn’t anti-religion at all. After all, religion can have positive effects on those who need moral guidance. Take, for example, the poverty-stricken Ugandans who are the subjects of Mormon intervention in this show.
Elder Price (Josh Gad) and Elder Cunningham (Andrew Rannells), two eager teenagers embarking on their first mission, are placed in a God-less, savage Ugandan village where genital mutilation, AIDS, and general fear of warlord violence permeate an average day. Totally out of their element, the pious twosome discovers that they can effect positive change, even if it’s through unorthodox methods.
A totally conventional musical, The Book of Mormon offers stage magic, cheesy songs and production numbers, evoking the spirit of the mid-20th century American musical, as opposed to the contemporary, rock-influenced presentations that have been big in the past 15 years. And this indulgent spectacle is the perfect forum for the story, which, true to its creators’ aesthetic, is chock full of dirty words and references. I doubt these expletives are often strung together in locker rooms, let alone on Broadway stages. And they’ve certainly never been more amusing. The innocence of the main characters in contrast with the script itself offers a glorious dichotomy. It’s very adult humor that made me feel as if I was a fifth-grader again. To find that unabashed innocence in one’s self is pretty cool too.
I realize I’m gushing, and that’s probably not fair because I’m sure The Book of Mormon is not without its theatrical faults. However, the message and the delivery automatically take precedence. The delightfully energetic cast is pitch-perfect in their sincerity, and the songs themselves are totally catchy. The book is incredibly well-crafted: every scene and every song propel the plot and nothing is superfluous. Parker, Stone and Lopez display an obvious competency. They’re not just messing around here.
I suppose The Book of Mormon is not for those who are easily offended, or those who are devoutly religious and refuse to question their belief system. But everyone else should quickly see the brilliance in this subversive, self-aggrandizing, completely sincere spectacle. Parker, Stone and Lopez have an agenda, and it’s welcomed at the O’Neill Theatre.
The Book of Mormon plays at the O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street. As of March 28th, performances will be Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7PM, Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 2PM and 7PM. For the full schedule visit bookofmormonbroadway.com. Tickets are $59-$137 and can be purchased at the show’s website. Show time is 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.