BWW Reviews: BOOK OF MORMON Writes the Book on Getting Away with Lewd Comedy
At the end of the first act of The Book of Mormon, now playing Austin's Bass Concert Hall for a two week run, I thought to myself, "This is the most distasteful, crude, offensive, and subversive musical I've ever seen, and I'm loving every minute of it." When I went out to the lobby, it was clear that the audience agreed. Everyone was smiling and wiping away tears of laughter as they quoted some of the best lines so far.
Everyone that is except for a certain man in a purple shirt. While everyone else stood around laughing, this man was sprinting to the exit, dragging his wife by the arm as he went. A look of terror was strewn across his face, a look normally reserved for someone who has just learned that Ben Affleck will be the next Batman. As he headed towards the door, I overheard the man said to his wife, "I thought this is supposed to be funny. It's not funny at all. It's just dirty. These guys, what are their names, Matt Parker and Trey Stein, know nothing about comedy."
I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and correct everything that was wrong with his statement. "Excuse me," I wanted to say, "But you are outrageously wrong. First, it's Trey Parker and Matt Stone. You know, the guys who created South Park, a show that's been on COMEDY Central for 17 seasons and has won several Emmy Awards. The same guys who celebrated their Oscar nomination for Best Song by going to the ceremony high on acid and dressed in drag. Given their other work and their personal antics, how did you not know that The Book of Mormon was going to be dirty? Several episodes of South Park have literally been about s***. Really, they've done quite a few 22 minute episodes that concern bodily functions. That's the kind of material that these guys come up with, and they've won some well-deserved Emmy Awards for it. If you see anything created by Parker and Stone, you should expect to be offended. These guys don't push the envelope. They tear it into tiny pieces and then light them on fire. But even if you know nothing about South Park or their other work, you must know something about the reception that The Book of Mormon's received. You must know that it was nominated for fourteen Tony Awards and won nine, including Best Musical. You must know that the show continues to sell out on Broadway, in London, and on tour. You must also know that the Original Broadway Cast Recording became the fastest-selling Broadway cast album in iTunes history and that the same album won a Grammy Award. But even if you didn't know any of that, surely you must have noticed that all 2,900 seats at tonight's performance are filled, and everyone but you is having a great time and laughing 'till it hurts. Given the success of Matt Stone and Trey Parker and the success of The Book of Mormon, I'd say these guys are comedic geniuses, and millions of people would agree with me, provided their funny bones aren't buried in their backsides like yours is. So to quote The Book of Mormon, Hasa Diga, sir!"
I wanted to say all that, but I physically couldn't. My face was numb from laughing too hard for the past hour.
The Book of Mormon takes crass satire (or crasstire as I like to call it) to new heights. It is a brilliantly written, superbly performed, and stunningly designed show that more than lives up to the hype. The show opens on optimistic and somewhat arrogant Elder Price (Mark Evans) who is about to embark on his missionary. While he's confident that he'll be able to convert thousands of people to the church, he quickly realizes that his task will be a challenging one once he learns that his partner will be Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill), a friendless nerd and pathological liar. Things get even worse when the two are sent to a poor village in Uganda where the incessant woe and strife has drained the villagers of any faith in God. As one of them says, it's nothing like Lion King.
True to form, Parker and Stone use the story to completely skewer religion in general and use copious amounts of potty humor and foul language along the way. The book and lyrics--by Stone, Parker, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q fame--is stuffed with four letter words and running gags about male and female anatomy. Some of the content is downright shocking. While I won't spoil any of the best jokes by printing them here, let's just say they make Avenue Q and The Producers look like family friendly fare. Yet no matter how deplorable or scandalous the joke, The Book of Mormon always gets away with it. Yes, it's crude and makes a mockery of anything and everything, but it's also a smart, sharp statement on organized religion. Regardless of what we think about the religious beliefs of others (it's clear that Stone, Parker, and Lopez have some issues with the Mormon beliefs that Jesus visted Ancient Hebrews who lived in America or that each believer will have their own paradise planet in the afterlife), we all need to believe in something. For all of its criticism of religion, The Book of Mormon ultimately supports it in a roundabout way. The show's several spoofs of other musicals and its score--also by Stone, Parker, and Lopez--show the creative team's love of musical theater. Theater fans may notice riffs on everything from The King and I to The Music Man to Wicked, and the tuneful, memorable score fits in with both old and new musical theatre staples.