The Book of Mormon
Book, Music and Lyrics Trey Parker,
Believe the hype: you’ll ache from laughing!
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Book of Mormon|
Review by Clint May
Avoiding bias is tricky, and hype bias is even trickier to sidestep. When something is created by renegades, is an original tale, has taken years to get out of development hell, swept the award season and been well-received by other critics—well, it can be downright intimidating to approach. Since 1997, I’ve watched and loved Matt and Trey’s infamous South Park. Later I would be exposed to Trey’s earliest work of subversion: a film-school project entitled “Cannibal! The Musical”, up to the later Orgazmo, which also featured a Mormon protagonist. So far I can’t find any reason why these two return again and again to Mormonism beyond their early exposure to Mormons—or Latter-day Saints, if you prefer—in their native Colorado. Not that they don’t offend every religion, and everyone, for that matter, as self-professed equal-opportunity offenders, but it’s curious nonetheless. Looking at their entire repertoire, they seem to be drawn to send up any and all ideas that are uniquely American. Any fans of South Park know that the two never shy away from original music (remember when “Blame Canada” from the South Park movie was nominated for an Academy Award in 1999?), so it’s actually a surprise it took them this long to get to Broadway.
When first the tidal wave of hype for The Book of Mormon became visible on the horizon, I made a concerted effort to avoid any and all exposure beyond the perfunctory press releases. No listening to cast recordings. Only a glancing familiarity with what the plot would be. I wanted to experience it as freshly as possible. It was the only way to keep my bias quotient low, but the suspense over the last year has been well-nigh unbearable. Now that I’ve finally experienced it, I can say one thing:
Totally worth it.
Not only does The Book of Mormon have Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s trademark themes of the hilarities that evolve from cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, blasphemy, religious absurdity, etc. mingled with their equally trademark over-the-top profanity and lampooning, it has something a lot of people overlook when discussing their work: an obvious love for their characters and an overriding theme of the power of friendship and loyalty. Without the foundation of Stan and Kyle’s enduring friendship in South Park, it’s doubtful America would have followed them through 200+ episodes.
If you’ve never seen Mormon missionaries walking two-by-two in their dark pants and tie with white shirt, Book of Mormon in hand, then the opening number, “Hello!” establishes perfectly what to expect. An affected and well-trained cheerful friendliness attached to an agenda of conversion has made them pariahs in the real world. This doesn’t faze self-absorbed 19-year-old Elder Kevin Price (Nic Rouleau), a prodigy of the faith who leads his fellow trainees with his cheesecake complexion and winning smile. At the end of their training, they await their assignment of place and companion for the next two years. Elder Price wants nothing more than to return to the magical world of Orlando, and believes that his years of devotion to God will ensure his prayer will be answered. That dream is crushed when his talents are seen more fit to be sent to a small village in Uganda, paired with the class misfit and resident sycophant (and pathological liar) Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt).
These fish-out-of-water arrive at their appointed place only to be instantly robbed before being found by their cultural liaison, who leads them to their mission center. After three months, the other missionaries have had exactly zero success in converting the locals, who delight in telling God exactly what he can do with the absurd number of troubles heaped upon them (the song, "Hasa Diga Eebowai"—’Fuck You, God!” is an acknowledged parody of the Lion King’s “Hakunah Matata”). It doesn’t trouble the missionaries much—it can’t, when they have the supernatural ability to suppress any bad thoughts with the push of a button! (“Turn It Off”) When those troubles include famine, rampant infection with AIDS, bizarre superstitions, and a neighboring warlord who wants to cut the clitorises off all the village’s women, the meek messengers of hope find they have their work cut out for them. What good can their wide-eyed and sheltered worldview do against such an onslaught of everyday intractable problems? Their resident Sacajawea comes in the form of Nabulungi (Syesha Mercado of American Idol fame), who becomes enchanted with the idea of a magical land of promise called Salt Lake City ("Sal Tlay Ka Siti"). Unfortunately, the trials prove too much for Elder Price, who snaps under the pressure and abandons his post and his “best friend” Elder Cunngingham. Left to his own devices for the first time in his life, Cunngingham decides it’s up to him to convert these people (“Man Up”). When his story falls on deaf ears looking for a more immediate, pragmatic solution to their problems, he begins to invent stories on the fly, mingling pop culture (Star Trek, Lord of the Rings) into the tale to create ad hoc solutions to their problems (e.g., you can’t rape a virgin to cure AIDS, God told Joseph Smith not to do that and have sex with a frog instead!). It works (as it has in other religions). But when the blasphemy is revealed, The Book of Mormon makes a pointed observation about the nature of religion, doubt, and friendship.
from 2011 Tony Awards
I’m fond of pointing out that profanity and scatology have existed in fine art and high literature since its inception (Shakespeare had early “Yo’ Mama’ jokes, Chaucer couldn’t resist a fart scene in The Miller’s Tale, the oldest known English jokes are phallus riddles, Mozart’s fecal obsession, really any work by Hieronymus Bosch, etc.). Laughing at a group of Ugandans as they sing of Joseph Smith ("Joseph Smith American Moses") falsely dying of dysentery or using baptism as a double entendre for losing one’s virginity (“Baptise Me”) puts us in fine old company indeed. Still, it amazes me just how much the trio of Parker, Stone, and Lopez (of Avenue Q fame) have gotten away with in our (seemingly) prudish culture. Book of Mormon runs a gamut of traditionally styled numbers that mingle hilariously with the off-kilter lyrics that are more than the sum of their surface shock value. Grounded in a big heart that loves even as it skewers, it’s the kind of affection that anchors us for a carnival-style journey into the heart of belief that takes us to heaven even if we have to visit a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” (easily one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen in a musical). Riffing off the classics with tunes that pay homage to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan among others, the numbers are given delirious life by director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw. One dance number has a black-out presto-changeo of such fabulousness it is—as my own companion noted—worth the price of admission alone. It’s post-modern eclecticism for a cynical age that reinvents the musical by looking back to its golden age. This mad science melange of tropes and traditions pokes fun but doesn’t judge, honors while it humbles, and above all is just downright entertaining as hell.
These two and a half hours whizz by on the wings of directors Parker and Nicholaw’s fine-tuned pacing that falls just shy of breathless. As the central duo, Nic Rouleau and Ben Platt are perfectly cast as the odd-buddy couple familiar since Randall and Klugman. Platt steals the show with his endearing loyalty and big-heart that drives his need to lie for attention. Both have fine voices, but are outshined by Mercado, who, even if she can’t quite nail the gags, finds wide-eyed innocence and vulnerability as a late-stage cast replacement. Romping about the intricately designed set by Scott Pask, the entire ensemble is a delightful vision of grand style and brio. Of them, Pierce Cassedy’s Elder McKinley is touching even when we’re laughing as we watch him struggle with strange male-on-male urges that Mormonism is well-known to vehemently dislike.
Sold out for the first several months, there were some in New York who wondered whether or not such a raunchy production could make it in the more conservative Midwest (I’m really tired of that particular prejudice, and I was refreshed to hear Stone state “We’ve heard that for years. New York just thinks it’s culturally different. Funny is funny.”). If you don’t like South Park, you probably won’t like this. If you’re on the fence, it will probably convert you. This is a surprisingly warm satire that is never as crude or rude as the F-bombs and poop jokes would make it appear, but of course we need the naysayers to make it all the more devilishly decadent to enjoy (where would Oscar Wilde or Mae West have been without censors to repress them?). Already extended through June, this is finely-crafted outrageous satire that—unlike those unnerved missionaries in the real-world—will likely be happily welcomed as friend into Chicago’s home for a good long visit.
The Book of Mormon continues through June 2nd at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map), with performances Tuesdays 7:30pm, Wednesdays 2pm & 7:30pm, Thursdays-Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm, Sundays 2p. Tickets are $45-$115, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through TicketMaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BroadwayinChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Joan Marcus
Ben Platt (Elder Cunningham), Nic Rouleau (Elder Price), Syesha Mercado (Nabulungi), Jackson Evans (Elder McKinley), James Vincent Meredith (Mafala Hatimbi), J. Casey Barrett, Tallia Brinson, Patrice Covington, David Aron Damane, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Jake Emmerling, Mike Evariste, Donell James Foreman, Bradley Gale, Eric Giancola, Darius Harper, Eric Huffman, Corey Hummerston, Eric Jackson, Emily Jenda, Nick Laughlin, J. Paris Alexander Nesbitt, Monica Patton, John Pinto Jr., Jon-Michael Reese, Travis Robertson, Christopher Shyer, Cessalee Stovall, Hardy Weaver
behind the scenes
Casey Nicholaw (co-director, choreography), Trey Parker (co-director), Brian MacDevitt (lighting), Brian Ronan (sound), Scott Pask (scenic design), Ann Roth (costume design), Carrie Gardner (casting), Larry Hochman (co-orchestrator), Stephen Oremus (music director, co-orchestrator, vocal arrangements), Josh Marquette (hair), Randy Houston Mercer (makeup design), Glen Kelly (dance music arrangements), John Samorian (music director), Michael Keller (music coordinator), Glynn David Turner (production stage manager); Jennifer Werner (asst. director), John MacInnis (asst. choreographer), Aurora Productions (productions management), Joycee Davidson (stage manager), Neveen Mahmoud (asst. stage manager), Brian Usifer (asst. music supervisor), David Turner (general manager), Peter Sarafin, Anmaree Rodibaugh, Jill B. Gounder (props), Joan Marcus (photos)