There’s no more palatable history lesson than one delivered in a musical. “The Book of Mormon” is an irreverent tutorial on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivered through witty lyrics, luscious scenery and upbeat music that belies the dark heart of the human condition.
It won 11 Tony Awards in 2011, as well as the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Best Musical. Book, lyrics and music were written by “South Park” co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” composer Robert Lopez.
Fans of those shows will not be shocked by the lingual, sexual and degenerate treatment of sacrosanct topics; the sensitive need not attend. “Mormon” is crass, offensive and wonderful.
The play’s appeal comes in part from the use of sophomoric humor to dissect the allure of religion. While Mormonism is the target, the play could be about any religion. It examines the anthropological need for hope and man’s ability to adapt any story to the conditions of his own life. (When scrutinized, there are preposterous elements in every religious text.)
The song “Hello” in the opening act sets the tone, which is happy, happy, happy and hopeful. A team of young men in crisp white shirts and black ties are being trained to ring doorbells and introduce strangers to their book, which they will do again and again during their two-year mission trip. They are teamed with random partners and assigned all over the world.
The protagonists are an unlikely pair: overconfident, popular Elder Price and misfit fibber Elder Cunningham. They draw the short straw and get sent to a Ugandan village run by a gun-wielding warlord, where 80 percent of the people have AIDS.
These fresh young Mormons can’t be dissuaded from their goal of sharing the Gospel and baptizing converts. Or can they? The dichotomy is stark: enthusiastic white men in white shirts in a village where squalor and fear dominate the black populace.
The songs attack every aspect of religion. In “Turn it Off,” the ensemble gleefully explains how to get rid of unclean thoughts. Do you sense you are gay? Are you troubled when your dad beats up your mom? Turn it off: “It’s a cool little Mormon trick!”
Ersatz history lessons populate the play. We meet Moroni and Jesus and Joseph Smith, who appear in cleverly staged dioramas. It’s a fascinating story that almost makes you want to read the book.
The casting is exquisite. As Elder Cunningham, Cody Jamison Strand’s vocal innuendos are hilarious. Ryan Bondy is inexplicably likeable as Elder Price, whose number “You and Me, But Mostly Me” nails his persona. Scott Pask’s set is a marvel; Salt Lake City is reminiscent of Oz, and the Ugandan slum is as wretched as, well, a Ugandan slum.
“The Book of Mormon” is about the eternal need to believe in the unfathomable spirit, no matter how bizarre, how unseemly, how incomprehensibly that spirit is presented. You’ll laugh more than you’ll wince – barely.