The Book of Mormon
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the evil geniuses behind South Park, may have made their name and fortune in TV and film, but they have never made a secret that their hearts really lie a continent away from Hollywood, in a gritty stretch of Midtown Manhattan.
Like Mel Brooks before them, the scarily creative and on-target duo have taken the opposite tack of most behind-the-camera types in using their clout on the Left Coast to get what they have most wanted: a top-drawer Broadway production. Well, they got it, and we get the funniest, most entertaining musical since -- well, since at least Brooks’ own The Producers.
The comparison is especially apt, since Parker and Stone, like Brooks, see the entire world through the lens of show biz. All the world’s a stage to these clowns, and the magic behind The Book of Mormon is its knowing, multi-layered deconstruction and reconstruction of the standard book musical.
It’s difficult to review this show without any spoilers -- and if you read anything else that gives too much of the plot away, put it down immediately. A great deal of the fun here is the various twists and turns that take a mismatched pair of Mormon missionaries and plunk them down in a Ugandan village.
If the "innocents abroad" take is shopworn, and the final plot resolution a bit pat, well, what of it? One of the joys of great storytelling is taking familiar scenarios and giving them spin. And spin it they do, beginning with an ensemble piece in which bright-eyed missionaries ring doorbells with the good news presented in the Book of Mormon.
Before that, however, we’re given the first of a series of Cliff’s Notes-type summaries of the cockeyed history of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Much of this will be familiar to those who have had the good luck to have seen the Mormon episode of South Park (it’s available on Hulu). But seeing live actors impersonate founder Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni, and the warring tribes of Nephites and Lamanites (which are Native Americans who descended from ancient Israelites ... or something) in a Sunday School diorama proves that live always beats two dimensions.
As Elder Price, Andrew Rannells sings and dances his heart out. He also personifies that adorable, geeky, all-American innocence that has made Mormon missionaries the subject of so many gay porn reveries. (I believe one of Colt’s Buckshot films has two missionaries assuming the missionary and other positions with an overpowering cowboy.)
Oh yeah: About that gay thing. Parker and Stone came in for some criticism for the "Fag" episode of South Park from well-meaning but clearly clueless organizations who couldn’t see the ironic forest for the tree of words. Because these guys not only get the whole gay thing; they have more of a gay sensibility than most gay men.
This is most apparent in the chorus of missionaries. I won’t be giving away the store if I reveal that (at least) one of them has dark thoughts about you-know-what. Even more to the point, I believe that Parker and Stone (along with their collaborator, Robert Lopez, he of Avenue Q, another über-queer friendly musical) use the "spontaneous" singing, dancing and all-around mugging of these well-scrubbed young men as an ironic commentary on the fact that many (most?) Broadway chorus boys swing on our side while portraying "real men."
The book is funny enough. Placing the duo in Uganda is a stroke of genius. As we know enough, this strife-torn, poverty- and AIDS-ridden African nation is a true hellhole. In Uganda, a report that homosexual behavior will only be outlawed, not murdered, counts as good news. It also allows a few well-placed zingers about the Mormons’ turnaround about blacks: The president of the church had a "revelation" in 1978 that black skin was not, as had previously been taught, the mark of Cain and that blacks were not representations of Satan. Or, as Elder Price puts it, "I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind."
This is only one of the many magnificent eccentricities of the church that Parker and Stone, who grew up in Colorado (next door to Utah and home to many Mormons) exploit. Underneath all the satire and blasphemy (wait until you hear the opening number from the Ugandans), however, there is another stream that is more sympathetic and, hence, subversive.
As was seen in that South Park Mormon episode, while they revel in the historical absurdities of the church, they retain a healthy respect for individual Mormons’ industriousness, earnestness, clean living and close family ties. As we learned to our regret during the Proposition 8 debacle, they also bring a strong sense of mission to achieve their stated goals.
It’s this sense of higher purpose amidst the screwball stuff that elevates The Book of Mormon from merely a very enjoyable musical to a deep one. The disparate nature of Mormonism is embodied in Elder Price’s sidekick, Elder Cunningham, who finds that lying can be used to a higher purpose. Josh Gad, who will be familiar to fans of The Daily Show where he’s been a regular correspondent, is out of the Jack Black-John C. Reilly mold of the dumpy second banana. The big surprise is that he really knows how to belt a song and he puts that flab to good use in some surprising and inventive dance moves.
Parker and Stone’s love of Broadway is evident throughout the show, which is a pastiche of musical comedy clichés. In one scene, however, there is a very direct reference to another, a narrated dance sequence about the church taken practically move by move from Jerome Robbins’ famous "House of Uncle Thomas" ballet from The King and I.
Actually, I suspect that the trio used that Rodgers and Hammerstein show as a virtual template, only here, Anna and her son morph into the missionaries, and the King of Siam is General Butt-Fucking Naked, a renegade rebel obsessed with women’s private parts.
As much as I’d love to find a flaw, this show is about as perfect as Broadway gets. My only "complaint" is that the Act One closer, as great as it is, is overshadowed by the Act Two opener. Whereas South Park: the Movie only featured Saddam Hussein in Hell, The Book of Mormon ups the ante with a dancing chorus of Adolph Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochcrane (O.J.’s lawyer).
But I reveal too much. Get a ticket (if you can; thanks to unanimously rapturous reviews, the show is apparently sold out months in advance). It’s the closest to heaven -- or the planet Kolob, where God, according to Joseph Smith, resides -- as you’ll get in this lifetime.
The Book of Mormon
The Eugene O’Neill Theater
230 W. 49th St. (E, C, 1 trains 50th Street station; R, W 49th Street station)
Tickets: the musical’s site or call 212-239-6200
This is an open-ended run (and very likely a long one)