Review: Book of Mormon
PLOT: Two young Mormon missionaries get their steadfast faith and cheery dispositions tested after they're assigned to the impoverished, war-torn country of Uganda.
REVIEW: Is BOOK OF MORMON the best Broadway show ever made? Though I've seen my fair share of musicals, I probably don't have the critical clout to make that claim. However, I am comfortable in declaring it my new favorite—a revelation so funny it's akin to a religious experience.
As a huge fan of "South Park" and everything else Trey Parker and Matt Stone have touched creatively, BOOK OF MORMON does not disappoint. Their healthy sense of scathing satire, crass wit, and good-natured humor is not lost in transition to the stage. If anything, the format has freed them to finally scratch the musical itch they've clearly had their entire career and allowed the duo to play in a fancy new sandbox with a live element that makes their work even more exciting and sometimes shocking. It's one thing to watch cartoon characters on TV talk about something like the "Magical AIDS F*ck Frog," but it's entirely different when a chorus of people are singing about it five feet in front of you.
The plot isn't complicated, which thankfully allows for a quick set up that gets the characters and the audience straight to the funny. Elder Price, an exemplary Mormon all-star, is partnered up with Elder Cunningham, a schlubby, awkward slacker, and the two set out for Africa assuming it's going to be exactly like THE LION KING. It's not. (The first reveal of the Ugandan set is jarringly hilarious and features a prop that had me in stitches.) The visiting pair, perfectly naïve in the grand Mormon tradition, is quickly confronted with poverty, AIDS, warlords, scrotal plagues and more, and the dire conditions and embittered Africans lead to a crisis of faith for Price and a new calling for the seriously under-qualified Cunningham that's ripe for comedy.
To reveal anymore about the plot or potentially spoil any of the great moments would be a shame, as the element of surprise is one of the show's strengths, along with its character work. A lot of the initial humor comes from Price and Cunningham as an odd couple, but both are quickly thrust in to a fish-out-of-water story that leads to some fun, shifting dynamics. Andrew Rannells, playing Elder Price, is clearly the more classically trained Broadway star and he's great as the straight-laced, somewhat cocky lead. However, Josh Gad's Elder Cunningham also deserves a lot of praise. Gad never really left an impression on me from his work on "The Daily Show" or LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS, but here he hits all the right comedic beats, straddling the right line between likable loser and annoying idiot. (Minor Spoiler: Once Cunningham embraces his "gifts," it may or may not lead to musical numbers that include Darth Vader, Frodo and other nerd favorites.)
Like most of Parker/Stone's work starting with CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL, the songs in BOOK OF MORMON are just as good as the jokes. Together with Robert Lopez, the creator of the also-fantastic AVENUE Q, the duo has penned a show full of hilarious and memorable tunes, including "Hello," an opening number that realistically portrays the trials of door-to-door evangelism, "Salt Lake City," a soul-stirring ballad about the Utahian paradise (played perfectly straight), and "Man Up," an empowering rock song reminiscent of "Now You're a Man" from the ORGAZMO opening credits. However, two other numbers clearly stand out high above the rest. One is a "Hakuna Matata"-like song with an African title whose English translation I cannot repeat on this website. With colorful language and blasphemous content, this is definitely the most potentially offensive—and hilarious—portion of the show, but still somewhat sensible when you consider what some Ugandans have to deal with on a daily basis. My other personal favorite is the aptly-titled "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," which wins solely from a production and insanity standpoint and features some surprises and celebrity cameos I will not ruin.
It should also be no surprise that BOOK OF MORMON manages to balance its crass humor with some genuine heart—making light of, but never cruelly mocking its subject matter. Flashbacks to Joseph Smith's story are weaved in to the narrative and impressively enough, the musical doesn't feel like a retread of the similarly-themed ORGAZMO or the "All About Mormons" episode of "South Park." Like a lot of Parker/Stone productions there's a surprisingly inherent sweetness to the show's final message, and, assuming they make it to the end, I could even see some Mormons approving of it. (Would it help that the stage is built like the Mormon Temple, complete with rotating golden Jesus statue on top?) Aside obviously from religion and exploring one's faith, the BOOK also touches on topics from issues facing Africa to homosexuality. I wouldn't say that things ever get really serious, but some moments are definitely more poignant than others. And even if you don't agree with their conclusion, I think you'll leave the theater on a life-affirming note (and not remembering you just watched something with jokes about baby rape).
If you're a fan of "South Park," ORGAZMO or any of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's work, seeing BOOK OF MORMON is a no-brainer and worth the trip to NYC. If you've enjoyed irreverent productions like AVENUE Q, or just like good music in general, this will also be right down your alley. And even if Broadway and musicals aren't your cup of tea, I'd consider this an exception given the talent and quality. SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK may be getting your curious attention, but BOOK OF MORMON deserves your money.
BOOK OF MORMON is currently in previews at the Eugene O'Neil Theatre in New York City.
|Extra Tidbit:||I was so sick of politics by the time the 2008 elections came around that I wrote in Trey Parker as my Presidential candidate.|