Word has been getting out that the new musical “The Book of Mormon” might be considered by some to be offensive and even insulting. Provocative in its own right, this audaciously conceived musical is more importantly a celebratory validation of the human spirit in the face of despair.
What could be more despairing or dispiriting to the people in a village in Uganda than to be devastated by AIDS even as they are under siege from a marauding war lord who intends to circumcise all the women? But what could be more engaging, emboldening, and even inspiring to them or to any musical than a platoon of young, wide-eyed, and especially naive singing and dancing Mormons with a mission?
“The Book of Mormon” is the triumphant result of a collaborating triumvirate: Matt Stone (book, music, and lyrics), Trey Parker (co-director, book, music, lyrics), and Robert Lopez (book, music, lyrics). They may have plenty to say about the intentions, the mission, and the agenda of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But they wittily and wisely posit their story on the theory, and in the spirited execution of it, that “Making Things Up” (as one song tells it) is not only the best way to survive, it is the only way.
If you are already a fan of co-creators Parker and Stone’s politically incorrect hit animated TV series “South Park,” this often hilarious assault on the origins, history, and recruitment policies of the Mormons will not come as a shock or as a revelation. I suspect for the rest (myself included) the irresistibly compulsive irreverence that pervades the show becomes increasingly endearing and even (dare I say it) spiritually empowering as the show moves to its exhilarating finale.
For reasons that are more or less understandable, there is no song list in the program. However, I may make reference to those songs that help me convey the joy of the experience. As if they were embarking on Noah’s ark, the graduating class of enthusiastic Elders from the Missionary Training Center in Salt Lake City is paired off to travel to various parts of the world to spread the word for a period of two years. What a pair of incompatibles Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) make.
The bright-faced, self-satisfied, wholesome-to-a-fault Price hardly knows how to cope with the chubby, clinging, overly needy and motor-mouthed Cunningham who wants nothing more than to be Price’s best friend. Price wants nothing more than to prove himself despite his disappointment at not being sent (as he prayed for) to Orlando a.k.a. DisneyWorld, Florida. They soon discover that getting converts by ringing door bells (there aren’t any) in the small AIDS-ravaged village in Northern Uganda is going to be difficult if not impossible. This is confirmed by the village’s chief (Michael Potts), his lovely daughter (Nikki M. James), and the villagers, whose attitude toward life is summed up in the score’s most irreverent song “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (translation is unprintable).
As a result, the prevailing attitude and survival mode for the six clean-cut missionaries and the irrepressibly gay (in denial, of course) team leader, Rory O’Malley, is to turn off their feelings and their emotions by going into a wonderfully silly and sequined (don’t ask) tap dance — one of a number of rip-tickling routines devised by choreographer and co-director Casey Nicholaw (“The Drowsy Chaperone”). Perhaps the musical’s most spectacular and most amusingly digressive number throws Price into a dream of purgatory in which an assemblage of dancing and writhing demons, devils, and assorted monsters have the benefit of costume designer Ann Roth’s imagination.
There is an uproarious scene in which the Ugandans put on a play for the benefit of the visiting Mormon hierarchy in which great liberties are taken re-enacting the story of “Joseph Smith American Moses,” as taught to them by the overly imaginative Elder Cunningham. This segment is also a sly reminder of the “Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet” in “The King and I,” in which the Siamese tell the story of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from their own perspective.
Scott Pask’s scenic designs, as enhanced by Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, is as much a celebration of imagination as anything that goes on in front of them.
Perhaps some Mormons will take offense at being reminded that they have scripture that explains why God turned some people black and how God suddenly changed his mind about black people in 1978. What this musical does so cleverly and effectively is to show us how one culture can be shown how to remove the drivel, adapt and apply basic truths, and become a part of a unifying universal dream.
Rannells, who was last seen on Broadway as Bob Gaudio (replacement) in “Jersey Boys,” and Gad, who played Barfee (replacement) in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” are delightfully (mis)matched and certainly have equal opportunities as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham to wow us. Terrific performances are also given by Brian Tyree Henry as the war lord (with an unprintable name), Michael Potts as Mafala Hatimbi, and the vivacious Nikki M. James as his daughter.
By avidly and conspicuously avoiding the sardonic and the parodic, the collaborators have created a very funny show that honors the age-old genre of biting satire. If I have to quibble a little, it may be that there has been little attempt to create three dimensional characters. But, as in a satirically targeted cartoon, there is satisfaction in even recognizing one dimension from a human perspective. The entire company, under the brilliantly conspiratorial direction of Nicholaw and Parker, are certainly proving that team work is the answer whether you are in the business of converting or simply entertaining, as this show does so wonderfully. ****
“The Book of Mormon,” Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street. $59 to $137. 212-239-6200.