"The Book of Mormon" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, March 7, 2011
In their first outing on Broadway, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the Southpark TV series and movies, have teamed up with Avenue Q's Robert Lopez. For any of you who have seen the Southpark films, you know restraint is not a feature of their writing style. In an interview on The Daily Show this week, they confessed that writing a musical has been a common goal for years.
Looking back over many of the Southpark episodes, plus their film, Southpark: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, the two have been traveling in this direction for years. The TV show has demonstrated a consistent fascination with the Mormon church, even dedicating the majority of one episode to the story of Joseph Smith, so when the opportunity arose to explore their musical theatre interests, it makes perfect sense that they would connect with Mr. Lopez, whose work follows a similar path of irreverence.
The Book of Mormon, rather than focusing on a retelling of the Joseph Smith story, follows two mismatched young Mormon missionaries, Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) on their mission assignment in the most brutal part of Uganda. The authors offer frequent tributes to great moments in musical theatre history. The Lion King gets the most attention in Act 1. "Hassadiga Iboway" welcomes the boys to Uganda in "Hakuna Matatta-style" but with a very different translation, among other smaller references. The daughter of the village leader is Nabalungi (Nikki James), still innocent somehow, despite the rampant AIDS, violence and genital mutilation that make up daily life. She buys into the missionaries' message, dreaming of a better life in "Salt Lake City" - an erstwhile "Somewhere That's Green."
Price gets disillusioned by his assignment, having hoped for Orlando instead and tries to quit the mission. During his absence, the task of conversion falls to Cunningham, who has a tiny problem with creative thinking outweighing the truth. He leads the village to conversion drawing the attention of the home church, who sends officials to witness the baptisms. Price, terrorized by a "spooky, Mormon, hell dream" returns to the mission with "I Believe," a tribute to Rodgers & Hammerstein reminiscent of, and borrowing a lyric or two from "I Have Confidence" from The Sound of Music. On the day of the baptisms, the villagers perform the story of Joseph Smith, a la Elder Cunningham's twisted interpretation, with a King and I style number like "Small House of Uncle Thomas" - - brilliant!
Just like each episode of Southpark, The Book of Mormon ends with a tidy moral, that is, oddly, uplifting. As much time as is spent running down the mythology and absurdity of religion in this show, the message is one that supports a place for faith and belief, even with a wink and a nod.
Directors Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw have assembled an excellent cast. Mr. Gad gets the benefit of the meaty role of Elder Cunningham and lets no opportunity go to waste - hysterical. Ms. James' sings sweetly as Nabalungi, if a little bland at times. Mr. Nicholaw's choreography and musical staging, though not quite Robbins, enhances the proceedings.
The Book of Mormon is not for the thin-skinned. Like the Southpark movie, no minority group comes away unscathed. (I must say, even with Jackie Hoffman in the audience, the crowd of ironic hipsters almost outweighed the irony on stage.)