BWW Reviews: Caustic, Hilarious BOOK OF MORMON at Hippodrome
Not for nothing is The Book of Mormon, its national tour perched at Baltimore's Hippodrome for a short while, a big hit. In one sense it has everything: snappy songs an audience can go out humming, great dancing, humor that is both broad and edgy if sometimes gross, and some wonderful roles. At its heart, however, lies an awkward match between subject and treatment.
The subject, religion, and indeed that of one specific denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, is given a frequently caustic satirical once-over, and, once the process is complete, the image of Mormonism (and by implication all religious faith) has been so scalded the show no longer feels entirely like a good-time Broadway musical. And despite all the plaudits the show has won (both Tony and Drama Desk best musicals, among many others), the uneasy fit between subject and treatment is a real problem.
The treatment is exactly what one would expect of the creative team, which includes Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the geniuses behind Comedy Central's thoroughly curdled South Park, a show that specializes in scabrous attacks on orthodoxy of all kinds. Few things are as disposed to orthodoxy as Mormonism, and hence, given who the creators are, it is a foregone conclusion that Mormonism is going to be roughed up. As most theatergoers know coming in, the arena for that roughing-up will be a proselytizing mission on which immature young Mormon men with the unlikely honorific of "Elder" are sent. And of course their faith is completely unprepared for the harsh realities they encounter. A lot like the hero of Candide who starts out with a naive belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, these Elders are slapped in the face by war and pestilence and ignorant superstition, not to mention the doctrinal and attitudinal weaknesses of their own beliefs. Like Candide, they will find that their initial convictions must be abandoned and something new put in their place.
This kind of plot, however, is not one that naturally winds up with everyone singing jubilantly at the end, which is one thing most big hit musicals require. Also, from a thematic standpoint, it paints the show into a difficult corner. I have seen various commentaries on the show that assert that the treatment of Mormonism is "affectionate." I'm not sure how affectionate it is when you have lyrics like
That Satan has a hold of you
That the Lord, God, has sent me here
And I believe!
That in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!
Nor am I in any doubt that it's downright hostile when the story of Joseph Smith's finding the Golden Tablets is retold with what amounts to rolling eyes on the subject of why the tablets were never found. This is a frontal attack on the Mormon faith structure, accomplished mainly by harping on things about it that seem ridiculous. And when the missionaries, the vectors of this rendered-ridiculous faith, are set loose in a country where their earnest but clueless activities endanger the population (putting villagers at risk of being shot in the head or subjected to female circumcision), I'm sorry, it's about as affectionate as Christopher Durang's takedowns of Catholicism.
So, after trashing Mormonism, and by implication most other faiths (since most have foundational myths about as likely-sounding as the LDS ones, and taboos that are no less but also no more sensible than those which restrain the Mormons), there are two natural places to end up. One would be in some kind of self-centered secular and existential humanism that takes the place of religion - where Candide arrives with his singular focus on making his own garden grow, or where John Lennon arrives after discarding all other forms of faith: "I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that's reality." The other would be a much bleaker existential despair, Camus territory. But Parker, Stone, and their collaborator Robert Lopez don't want to go either place. So they have to fudge it.
I won't give away what they do, except to say that it's a huge spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down and philosophically confused and illegitimate (probably), but at least permissible in dramatic terms. There is some kind of reason for the whole cast (and hence the audience) to be exultant at the end.
Apart from that, this musical shamelessly incorporates spare parts from all over the known universe of Broadway hits. There is singing and choreography that will put you in mind of The Lion King. There is a strong echo of the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" sequence from The King and I. The opening number, HELLO, in which a passel of insanely cheerful young Mormons ring doorbells hawking free Mormon scriptures, will call to mind the "Telephone Hour" that started off Bye-Bye Birdie. With all of this looting of sure things, it's no wonder it all comes across in such sparkling fashion.
Not that the show succeeds on theft alone. To the contrary, the songs are solid, well-rhymed, frequently ingenious, and tuneful (probably primarily the handiwork of Robert Lopez, whose resume included Avenue Q). And always, always, the lyrical content is devoted unreservedly to blasphemy. To choose an example almost at random, this snippet from BAPTIZE ME, with an implicit comparison of baptism to - well, you know what:
I'm wet with salvation
We just went all the way
Praise be to God
I'll never forget this day
I've never seen the mothership show on Broadway, so I can't compare, but I can tell you that this cast delivers about as well as I could imagine any cast doing. The three principals, Mark Evans as Elder Price (the handsome self-confident one), Christopher John O'Neill as Elder Cunningham (the short schlumpy one who turns out to have a lot more on the ball than anyone suspects), and Alexanda Ncube as Nabulungi (the smart, spunky Ugandan convert who longs to go to "Sal Tlay Ka Siti"), are simply superb. Ncube in particular just radiates star power, with a strong voice and, a smile halfway between angel and girl-next-door. The choreography by Casey Nicholaw is deliriously funny at times.
So when you go to see it - because you know you would see it whatever any reviewer said (the crowd on press night was thick and enthusiastic) - you're going to have a wonderful time. But as you do so, spare a thought or two for the deeper issues, philosophical and dramatic, that are raised when a South Park sensibility is trained on a religious subject.
The Book of Mormon, by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, through March 9, at Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 North Eutaw Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21201. Tickets almost unavailable for original sale; in online resale venues $174 to $917. Extreme adult language, brief graphic violence, adult themes. Not suitable for children.