‘The Book of Mormon’: A heaven-sent satire

“You’ve seen the play … now read the book. ” So chirps an advertisement for Mormonism in—of all places—the Playbill for The Book of Mormon, the gleeful satire now playing for a two-week stint at the Majestic downtown. But what the ad gets wrong—disastrously—is that The Book of Mormon isn’t a play at all, but a deliriously overblown musical, which is exactly what makes its satire of Mormonism so effective: the only way, it seems, to expose the over-the-top lunacy of American religiosity is with some over-the-top American tap dancing! And over-the-top jazz hands! And over-the-top sequins! 

And so South Park scribes Trey Parker and Matt Stone join forces with Robert Lopez (of Avenue Q fame) in crafting the musical comedy equivalent of an H-bomb—or, rather, given the amount of profanity in the show, an F-bomb. The story begins with two young Mormons—Elders Price and Cunningham—as they prepare to receive their missions; Price—a narcissist winningly played by Mark Evans—dreams of proselytizing in the promised land of Orlando, while Cunningham, a pathological liar, seeks to repair the damage caused in his adolescence. But instead of shimmying to Florida, this improbable duo sashays, twirls and gyrates to and through Uganda, as they attempt to save a destitute village from the machinations of a local warlord. It’s a nail-biting premise: can these crooning soldiers of the Angel Moroni actually prevail over the decidedly non-musical horrors of dysentery, bullets and clitoral mutilation?

But the goofiness of the plot is really beside the point. The larger thesis is that Price and Cunningham—indeed, all Mormons—draw their strength from a truly bizarre religious narrative, in which the brooks of Eden babble somewhere in Missouri, and God changes His mind about racial prejudice in 1978. What makes the musical fly is that the sunny optimism of Mormonism finds a perfect counterpart in glorious Broadway dance: “Turn It Off”—a high-octane and quick-stepping tribute to psychological repression—is ironic, sly and devastating all at once. Yet there’s also a remarkable—and equally American—sweetness to the show. When a villager (terrifically sung by Samantha Marie Ware) muses about an escape from Uganda, she contemplates a utopia only vaguely sketched in the African imagination: the fabled American paradise of … Salt Lake City, where nothing bad could ever happen. 

The musical falters once, in the second act, with its chaotic production number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” a hallucinogenic mishmash of modern horrors that seems less inspired by the LDS than LSD. (It also re-treads some of Parker and Stone’s earlier work; after all, the authors had already combined Satan and sodomy to fine effect in their film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Plus, the descent to Hell in the British musical Jerry Springer: The Opera is sharper and more pointed, particularly in its depiction of Lucifer’s barbed-wire anal fetish. (And I thank the Current for allowing this brief survey of infernal ass-fucking in Western dramatic art. We now return to the Alamo City.) 

Production values for this touring version are strong, and the designers consistently reinforce the show’s go-for-broke internal logic. At first, Ann Roth’s costumes appear shamelessly plagiarized from a certain Broadway blockbuster, as a bright, splashy headdress ushers us into the fanciful universe of The Lion King. But this just sets up Scott Pask’s nasty scenic surprise: his Ugandan village is no Disneyland, but a blasted shantytown even Donny Osmond couldn’t save, however Technicolor his Dreamcoat. Casey Nicholaw doubles as choreographer and co-director—with plenty of jabs at the Pollyanna musicals of the American and British stage—while Christopher John O’Neill consistently steals his scenes as the increasingly desperate Elder Cunningham. (O’Neill’s singing voice is a bit rough, however.) I first saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway, and wondered if such an exuberantly offensive show could possibly survive a tour to heartland America. But its nine Tony awards—including one for Best Musical—obviously helped to secure backers. The couple in front of me sat stone-faced the entire evening—I mean, shit, they didn’t even crack a smile when Hobbits showed up! Hobbits!—but the vast majority of Majestic patrons were rolling in the aisles. I’m not sure that The Book of Mormon will ultimately spawn profound discussions about the value of religious faith in America, but perhaps it’s enough to get us thinking about what sorts of stories are worth believing in, and at what price to others and ourselves. And after all, isn’t cheering on The Book of Mormon, The Musical, what Jesus would do? Two thumbs way, way up.

Ed. Note: While tickets appear to be selling fast for these performances, there’s a day-of $25 ticket lottery in effect for The Book of Mormon. To be eligible, show up at the Majestic box office two-and-a-half hours in advance of show to enter your name (limit two tickets per person). Entries will be selected at random two hours before curtain and each $25 ticket is good for one orchestra-level seat. Winners must be present with valid ID and cash at time of drawing.

The Book of Mormon

Wed-Thu 7:30pm; Fri 8pm;
Sat 2pm, 8pm; Sun 2pm, 7:30pm
Majestic Theatre
224 E Houston
(210) 226-3333
Through Sept 29

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