The musical The Book of Mormon won nine Tony Awards on Broadway. And the touring show has nearly sold out its current run at the Winspear Opera House. But along with such acclaim and popularity, The Book of Mormon has earned a reputation for its obscene humor. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says, it’s all true.
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The Book of Mormon is a remarkable achievement. No, really. The creators of the cartoon series South Park and the musical Avenue Q take two young Mormon missionaries and send them to poverty-stricken, AIDS-afflicted Uganda. It’s another case of clean-cut, clueless, American innocents abroad, overwhelmed by real-world problems. Along the way, the musical manages to mix together a savage mockery of religion and condescending jokes about rape and Africa and female circumcision. But it also has lovable characters and big, splashy Broadway dance numbers. It shouldn’t work, but it does — quite splendidly. We get snickering, juvenile satire and happy, high-kicking showbiz.
This song, for instance, is a classic Broadway anthem; it’s a ‘This is my moment!” number, a declaration of self. The young Elder Price went into shock when he saw an African warlord shoot a man in the face. Price promptly gave up their mission and any thought of converting Ugandans. But now he comes back with renewed purpose:
“Now I must be completely devout.
I can’t have even one shred of doubt.
I believe that the Lord God created the universe
I believe that He sent his only Son to die for my sins.
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America.
I am a Mormon. And a Mormon just believes.”
That song — “I Believe,” from the Broadway cast recording — has become the show’s standout. That’s partly because it’s one of the few that doesn’t have obscene lyrics about hating God — or having sex with frogs. That does make it easier to play on the radio or TV or karaoke bars. But it’s also because the song is both a rousing hymn and a spoof of blind faith.
Elder Price was the golden-boy of the missionary school, so he’s appalled he’s even in Uganda (which, of course, is depicted as a cliched African basket case, a complete disaster — which actually undercuts Price’s egotism somewhat. Would anyone want to be here?) Meanwhile, his partner, Elder Cunningham, is just happy to have a partner and a mission. He’s a lonely, pudgy screw-up who frantically makes up stuff when he panics. So when Price runs away, Cunningham is left to help the Ugandans. His inventive yet ludicrous efforts at preaching mash together Mormonism with Hobbits and Death Stars.
In their 15 years of creating South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made no secret of their cheerfully sardonic atheism: They don’t see any real difference between established religions and Elder Cunningham’s fan-boy fantasies. Theirs is not a particularly profound take-down of spiritual faith: All of religion is just silly when it’s not actively limiting, repressive, even destructive. The show’s ending is also weak — from the unconvincing face-off with the warlord (Derrick Williams) to a resolution that may ‘solve’ some of the Ugandans faith-based issues but not, oh, the fact that, as one declares, “80 percent of us have AIDS.”
Where Parker and Stone and their collaborator, composer Robert Lopez, truly excel is lampooning showbiz – whether that’s rock ‘n’ roll or Disneyworld or Broadway. When religion is just another form of fantasy entertainment, they get high marks for the way they connect this all-American faith to American popular culture, lampooning hard rock anthems (“Man Up”), The Lion King’s fuzzy-wuzzy animal-spiritual view of Africa and even more recondite theater numbers, such as the “Small House of Uncle Thomas’ from The King and I.
As a result, the second act of The Book of Mormon achieves a sublime level of raunchy humor — especially when the Ugandans stage their own hilarious version of Cunningham’s Star Wars theology and when we visit a favorite, after-life hotspot of South Park: Hell. The guilt-ridden Price is sent back to a childhood memory, familiar to any South Park viewer, populated as it is with dancing skeletons, Jews, Catholics and Johnny Cochran:
“Down, down thy soul is cast
From the earth whenceforth ye fell
The path of fire leads thee
To Spooky Mormon Hell Dream!”
It’s hard to overstate how accomplished this touring production is. Co-directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw, it’s a huge undertaking, involving 37 performers, something one rarely sees even on Broadway these days. The leads are exceptional: Mark Evans blends the right mix of gleaming earnestness, confidence and self-love (why not? The goals of his faith and his career advancement are one). As Cunningham, Christopher John O’Neill handles the sweet-Jonah-Hill-ish dweeb duties with ease while uncorking unexpectedly adept skills at dancing and singing. For her part, Samantha Marie Ware has an unearthly powerful singing voice — as the African female who first falls for the Mormon’s proselytizing. It could be an embarrassing role in a show that often treats Africans as either wrecks, monsters or jokes (Ware’s character “texts” her fellow villages by pounding away at an old portable typewriter). But Ware delivers the character with grace and emotional openness.
At intermission, I stood in the Winspear lobby counting the people walking out. The Lexus Broadway Series has seen sizable audience exits from such shows as Spring Awakening and August: Osage County. But during the opening night of The Book of Mormon, barely a handful left. Perhaps that first Lexus season three years ago was a warning flag to many Dallas theatergoers: The Lexus series will present mature material. But as I told my 23-year-old daughter, earlier seasons had sex and drugs and profanity. This show tops them all with explicit blasphemy and cheap cynicism.
Yeah, she said, but Broadway show tunes make a big difference. True. The Book of Mormon‘s real faith lies in singing and tap-dancing and cracking jokes and presenting a terrific touring production.
For me, personally? It was something of a revelation.