REVIEW WRITTEN BY DANTE J.J. BEVILACQUA
For 21st Century Media
“The Book of Mormon” could easily plead guilty to the charge of bad taste, but there is so much creativity on display and the sensational cast delivers the songs and dialogue with so much energy that even the most thin-skinned spectator may well be disarmed.
After seven years of development, the show opened on Broadway (without a tryout) in March of 2011. “Mormon” has garnered overwhelmingly positive critical response and nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The financial backers amazingly recouped their investment in just nine months of performances.
BBC radio host Richard Bacon, said it would be “the best two hours of your life”, and others urged the public to “break all the commandments to get a ticket.”
This savage romp is the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. True to form, they have crafted a show that is packed with moments of startling obscenities; which seems to be its chief calling card. The profanity is guaranteed to peel the paint off the walls. The music is by “Avenue Q’s” Robert Lopez.
Stone and Parker are famous for their take-no-prisoners, nothing-is-sacred approach to humor, and Lopez knows about thumbing his nose at contemporary conventions. Their musical is inventive, slick and subversive. It manages to offend, provoke laughter, trigger eye-rolling, satirize conventions and be appealing in a perverse way, all at the same time.
The Mormon church has received a great deal of criticism and ridicule, with religious tenets that seem ripe for the setup. Both irreverent and funny, “Mormon” has something to shock pretty much everybody, which is really the whole point.
Unlike any other show, it has a scorched-earth policy towards the sensibilities; going about the business of causing offence with such free-wheeling enthusiasm that “outrage fatigue” can quickly set in.
The central theme is that many religious stories are rigid, out of touch, and silly; concluding that religion itself can do enormous good as long as it is taken metaphorically and not literally.
It’s basically a fish-out-of-water tale, starring two eager Mormon missionaries Elder Price, and Elder Cunningham who fly to Uganda to join a group converting Africans.
Understand that different times call for different contexts. So instead of sending a widowed British governess to a royal court in 19th-century Siam or a nun in training to an Austrian chateau, “The Book of Mormon” transports two dewy missionaries from Salt Lake City to 21st-century Uganda.
Together they set out on a mission to win converts in a less than flattering version of Uganda, where a thuggish warlord with one eye terrorizes terminally ill villagers. This is a troubled world full of maggots, mutilation and sexually transmitted disease. As Elder Price remarks, “Africa is nothing like The Lion King.”
Religion, the eager Elders firmly point out, is showbiz, and they systematically dismantle the absurdities of Joseph Smith’s 19th-century revelation through the intoxicating frivolity of musical conventions. Of the show biz classics referenced in the pastiche score, and in sight gags or laugh lines are; “The Sound of Music,” “Wicked,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Music Man” and naturally, “The Lion King.”
When the uber-geek Cunningham tells the villagers that the Book of Mormon involves hobbits, starships and Jedi, they believe him and so it becomes true for them in a meaningful way.
The musical numbers are witty, ridiculous, superbly executed, indisputably stirring and contrary to expectation, free of malice. However, racist overtones aside, “The Book of Mormon” is not the first show to send up musicals; but note that “SPAMALOT,” “The Producers” and even “URINETOWN” are decidedly more clever, sophisticated, and creatively funny.
The whole company is nimble and charismatic and perfectly in sync with the insanity. Christopher O’Neill is especially loony yet grounded as the lovably Arnold; a quivering bundle of insecurities, hilariously desperate to please. KJ Hippensteel shines brightly as the overachieving, Elder Price. Alexandra Ncube is attractively convincing as Nabulungi, the Ugandan girl with dreams of escaping her apocalyptic village.
All the catchy musical numbers are danced with a high stepping exuberance that drives the performance. The show is also boosted by canny contributions from set designer Scott Pask, costume designer Ann Roth and the pulsating music of Justin Mendoza.
There’s no doubting that “Mormon” has the smell of a send-in-the-tourists runaway hit attraction, but it won’t be coming to a high school near you any time soon. Yes, the punch lines are perverse and twisted but despite its absurdity, ecstatic weirdness and crass swagger, it is not without good intentions. It survives more on its musical theater prowess than on its outright sock value. The moral of this story is that religions have conciliatory aspects that draw people together rather than forcing them apart.
IF YOU GO
The Book of Mormon continues at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut street in Philadelphia through Sept. 14. Tickets: $67 – $162. For information, call (800) 447-7400 or check www.telecharge.com.