The unique thing about “The Book of Mormon” is that the same adjectives can be used to praise or pan it.
It’s crass and juvenile, but crassly funny and joyously juvenile in a way that gets the middle-schooler inside many of us sniggering through it.
It’s shocking, if naughty language and gross concepts shock you. But what’s really shocking is the way this musical hews to the time-tested formula of an innocent hero – in this case, two innocent heroes – overcoming adversity, finding love and leaving us feeling better about the world.
It’s fundamentally one long joke about innocents abroad. But co-composers, co-lyricists and co-librettists Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone explore and exploit all facets of that joke so cleverly that it hardly ever seems stale.
And it mocks organized religion – well, one organized religion – in such an amiable, silly way that even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has laughed it off. (The church bought three full-page ads in the Belk Theater playbill; one suggests, “You’ve seen the show, now read the book.”)
The trio behind it combined the gleefully vulgar tone of the TV show “South Park” (which Parker and Stone created) and the traditional musical about young people’s dreams (which Lopez had already tweaked amusingly in “Avenue Q”).
The songs follow a classic model: the hero’s declaration of purpose (“I Believe”), the heroine’s yearning for escape to a better world (“Sal Tla Ka Siti” – speak it aloud quickly), the big frantic production number (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”) and the rousing chorus of hope, however perversely expressed (“Joseph Smith American Moses”).
But what has made “Mormon” the hottest ticket on Broadway is its blend of emotion, snarkiness and pants-dropping boorishness, and the creators have calibrated that combination unusually well.
Their strongest idea, which they employ frequently, is to counterpoise what we see and what we hear. So the joyous “Hasa Diga Eebowai” turns out to be a song telling God to go – well, you get the idea – and “Turn It Off,” which is mostly about suppressing homosexual thoughts, turns into a big gay tap number. (Hey, everybody: jazz hands for Jesus!)
Elder Price (Mark Evans) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) head to Uganda for their two-year mission to introduce Africans to the church. The inhabitants of their district worry too much about famine, genital mutilation of their daughters and a warlord who shoots people point-blank to care much about promises of salvation.
Then Cunningham, a chronic slacker with a bizarre imagination, woos them with a theology that incorporates AIDS cures, Hobbits, “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” myths. They start to come around, asking for baptism, until the warlord (whose name can never appear in this paper) gets annoyed.
A theater-savvy friend says this Broadway Lights tour matches the original Broadway version in all respects, and I wouldn’t be surprised. Evans and O’Neill have worked together for a year and have their big dog-puppy dog chemistry down pat. Samantha Marie Ware projects winsome feistiness as Nabulungi, who’s about equally interested in knowing Christ, hooking up with Cunningham and escaping her village for the paradise of Oo-tah.
Stanley Wayne Mathis rocks the house with the number telling the Lord to do unprintable things, Grey Henson does the same with his song about impure thoughts, and the ensemble displays extraordinary energy. (I liked Ron Bohmer in multiple parts, including a Joseph Smith fit for televangelism.) The nine-person orchestra matches that high standard: I haven’t heard a pit band here play with more fervor or unity.
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