When a show combines the talents behind two of the most subversive mainstream musicals in recent years – Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q – it’s reasonable to expect that there’ll be scatology and iconoclasm in the mix. The Book of Mormon duly delivers both in spades, with some of the filthiest lyrics ever heard on a Broadway stage and enough religious irreverence to make Fred Phelps wonder if he’s fighting a losing battle.
However, both Avenue Q and the South Park movie also share an obvious love for and awareness of classical musical style and convention, and this side of their creators’ talents is also in abundant supply. Taken on its most straightforward terms, The Book of Mormon is a masterclass in construction and pacing. It has strong, well-defined characters in whom it’s easy to get emotionally invested and whose story is moved forward to a satisfying conclusion through superb, catchy show-tunes in a variety of styles which nod to heavily to recent Broadway tradition – there are echoes to be heard of Rent, Wicked and Hairspray – and even to The Sound of Music
At its core it’s a fairly archetypal plot: two unlikely partners battle adversity and learn a little bit about themselves along the way. Our two heroes in this case are both Mormon missionaries – clean-cut superstar of the faith Elder Price, and slobby drop-out Elder Cunningham – who are sent to join the massively unsuccessful efforts of their brethren in Uganda (total souls saved: zero). Price’s bullet-proof confidence in himself is shaken, while Cunningham is called upon to rise to challenges he always thought beyond him.
Apart from the sturdiness of its dramatic skeleton, the beauty of The Book of Mormon is that it’s ambitious, and successful, on every level. It’s hugely funny – the most I’ve laughed in a theatre since The Producers – and delights in taking pot-shots at any number of issues. The Lion King and left-for-dead Broadway rival Bono get their noses playfully tweaked and the peculiar tenets of Mormonism get a thorough dusting down but more serious issues are brought into play as well: hilarious comic songs deal seriously with ideas about the suppression of self required by religious conformity and the arrogance and dilettantism of religious colonialism. They don’t flinch from Africa’s AIDS pandemic, factional warfare or the cultural perpetuation of female circumcision.
Like the very best satirists, Parker, Stone and Lopez are at heart humanists and while they’re merciless towards weak ideas and sloppy thinking, they’re unfailingly generous and compassionate towards individuals. It’s a kind show at its core and, perhaps surprisingly, is not by any means a blanket condemnation of religion but a plea for a more sophisticated application of its power.
The production isn’t quite perfect – the final section runs a little too long and its impact is diluted by repeating material from earlier in the show, and while Andrew Rannells as Elder Price and Nikki M. James as Nabalungi, a village girl who is taken up with their missionary zeal, are both superb, Josh Gad as Elder Cunningham leans a little too heavily on the dishevelled and boorish side. His character feels like it was written for, and is pretty much played as, a young Jack Black but Gad lacks Black’s underlying innocent sweetness to leaven the role.
These quibbles are minor, though, in a show which can make theatrical gold from an exegesis of the life of Joseph Smith – ‘the prophet with a little Donny Osmond flair’ – to a Dantean vision of a Creepy Mormon Hell Dream, complete with menacing apparitions of maple topped donuts. I’d say it’s time to give Parker and Stone a MacArthur Genius grant but their truckload of Tonys and packed houses suggest they’re doing just fine as they are.