You know that The Book of Mormon is the biggest theatrical hit in years, achieving the kind of rock-star status that Mel Brooks’ The Producers inspired a decade ago. You know that it won nine Tony Awards—including best musical—and is still selling out on Broadway two years later. You also know that Mormon’s national tour is the hot ticket, and that if you don’t already have seats chances are slim you’re going to get any. But do you know if the show is actually worth all the hype?
The answer is yes. The Book of Mormon is the funniest, raunchiest, smartest, and rudest musical to emerge in years, and that’s no surprise considering it comes from the guys who created South Park. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, are artists who have built their careers out of combing the offensive with the hilarious. With Avenue Q and South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, the men proved their musical chops, and now Mormon proves that they were just getting started.
Parker and Stone have skewered the Mormon Church before on their animated show, but here they devote two and a half hours to lovingly ridiculing some of the religion’s more off-the-wall beliefs while getting in multiple jabs at, well, practically everyone else. Just like on their show, Parker and Stone are equal-opportunity roasters.
Beginning with the catchy “Hello,” we’re introduced to the current crop of fresh-faced, clean-cut young men who will be departing on their missions. Elder Price (Mark Evans) is the superstar who dreams of spreading his faith in Disney-fied Orlando; Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), the disheveled screw-up who’s desperate for a friend. The two are of course paired together, and while their cohorts depart for places like France and Japan, they are sent to Uganda.
There, disease is rampant and the people are disillusioned. Why should they embrace a God who places a violent warlord nearby, one who’s intent on mutilating all the village’s women? The missionaries already stationed there haven’t converted one soul, and the outlook appears grim. Of course, that’s the perfect time for a tap dance about suppressing one’s homosexual urges. One chipper song-and-dance routine after another is lobbed at the audience, and most are quite lyrical. Casey Nicholaw, who choreographed as well as co-directed with Parker, delivers functional routines that don’t interfere with the true stars: the clever and often nasty lyrics. Evans nails Price’s unfailing optimism and brings a killer tenor to some of the show’s best tunes, including the inspirational “I Believe.” O’Neill, a comic making his theatrical debut, more than holds his own against the seasoned cast.
What truly grounds the musical is how the two men humanly deal with their unexpected circumstances. As Elder Price discovers that his golden-boy charm isn’t enough to solve the world’s problems, he spirals downward. The detailed nightmare he has after breaking a rule is the musical’s first showstopper—and yes, I said “first.” A later show-within-the-show heaps even more uproarious insults on top of Mormon’s already outrageous base.
Meanwhile, Elder Cunningham is forced to step up and lead. His low self-confidence and penchant for lying, however, might prevent him from winning the heart of a beautiful village girl (Samantha Marie Ware) who’s intrigued by this faraway paradise called Salt Lake City. What really makes The Book of Mormon is that it remembers that we all know what it’s like to feel lost or inadequate, even if we don’t necessarily know what it’s like to confront a one-eyed genocidal warlord.
Photos by Joan Marcus