Review - The Book of Mormon: Not Since Kwamina
"Cute" is probably not the adjective that Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker were going for when they co-authored the book, music and lyrics of The Book of Mormon. Neither is "cute" a word I'd expect to use when describing a musical where genital mutilation and the belief that having sex with an infant will cure an adult of AIDS figure significantly in the plot and the big Act I showstopper has a chorus of villagers happily singing, "Fuck you, God!" But The Book of Mormon - which absolutely should be praised for its non-traditional material that, to borrow what Brooks Atkinson wrote of Pal Joey, attempts to draw sweet water from a sour well - sets us up for intriguing social satire and then settles for being well-structured, sharply mounted, terrifically performed innocuous entertainment.
Which would be fine if the authors involved weren't already successful at doing so much more. Lopez co-wrote the music and lyrics for Avenue Q, which capitalized brilliantly on its enormously clever concept of having a television show for the generations who learned their earliest lessons on programs like Sesame Street which would use the same methods to teach them survival skills for facing the real world their first years out of college. Stone and Parker have used scatological humor to tackle heady issues as the creators of South Park, including a very well done episode about The Book of Mormon.
In that half-hour cartoon, the story of Joseph Smith, Jr., Brigham Young and the golden plates was told with semi-musical straight-faced mockery until the final moments zapped home the message that no matter how silly a faith's beliefs may seem on the surface, what matters more is the message of love and compassion that's underneath. The new musical comes to the same conclusion, but does so by way of an overflow of standard gags that abandon satire for rim shots. It's a bit like having a fine, sturdy evergreen decorated with lovely, hand-crafted ornaments and just enough tacky, plastic junk to steal focus.
On the plus side it's an affectionate buddy story of optimistic youth dealing with the disillusionment of being immersed into the real word and then breaking tradition in order to change the things for the better. In this case, a mismatched pair of Mormons reach the point of their lives where the church sends them out to do two years of missionary service. The privileged, over-achieving Elder Price (an impeccably earnest and plastically cheery Andrew Rannells) was banking on an assignment to Orlando, where he could live out his Disney fantasy life. The awkward, slovenly and socially inept Elder Cunningham (puppy doggish Josh Gad), who habitually tells lies when he feels pressured, is just looking for acceptance. What they get is an assignment to an AIDS-ravaged, poverty-stricken village in Uganda where everyone lives in fear of the warlords.
Afraid for their lives but devoted to their faith, the boys dive into their assignment with well-rehearsed enthusiasm, despite being advised that the area has failed to inspire even one convert, since the people are more concerned with basic survival than their story of prophecy. All heck breaks loose when Cunningham, suffering a severe case of flop sweat, starts "quoting" references to AIDS and dysentery from his scriptures, as well as peppering Joseph Smith's adventures with references to pop culture sci-fi, exciting the villagers with a tale they can relate to.
While the plot is undoubtedly clever, the book is overloaded with genial-at-best jokes. There's a bit about a trying to send text messages with a typewriter, and running gags involving a chap with maggots in his scrotum and the hero's inability to pronounce his potential girlfriend's name. (I'll overlook their choice to name the show's villain General Buttfucking Naked, since it's based on an actual person.) Despite a noticeable number of false rhymes, a higher brand of humor comes from the score, which includes a harsh spoof of "happy villager" rousers, an African unity anthem sung by the white characters and - one of the best theatre songs in several seasons - a sincere ballad where a young Ugandan (Nikki M. James, very charming as a love-interest for Cunningham) imagines how wonderful it must be to live in Utah, which she envisions as an idyllic version of the only world she knows; a place where the warlords are friendly and there are plenty of goats and vitamin shots for everyone. At this point, The Book of Mormon reaches its peak of being both funny and touching.
Parker co-directs with choreographer Casey Nicholaw, whose traditional Broadway song-and-dance style plays straight for the more subversive moments, particularly in a tap dance number where a self-denying homosexual colleague explains the church's practice of dealing with unwanted emotions by ignoring them. Practicing Mormons in the audience not fidgeting at that point may find their senses of humor better tested in Rannells' gloriously sung power ballad, "I Believe," a questionably-worded declaration of faith which includes lines like, "I believe / That in 1978 God suddenly changed his mind about black people."
During such moments, The Book of Mormon achieves something rare nowadays; it brings what is generally considered to be an "Off-Broadway sensibility" directly to Broadway without having to be discovered first at a non-profit or hole-in-the-wall black box theatre. If we can have more of that without the scrotum jokes I might have a little more faith in the future of Broadway musicals.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Andrew Rannells; Bottom: Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad.
"I cry out for order and find it only in art."
-- Helen Hayes
The grosses are out for the week ending 4/17/2011 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: HIGH">HIGH (28.5%), JERUSALEM">JERUSALEM (12.6%), WONDERLAND">WONDERLAND (12.4%), AMERICAN IDIOT (10.8%), ROCK OF AGES (6.2%), LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (5.9%), RAIN: A TRIBUTE TO THE BEATLES ON BROADWAY (5.0%), PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (4.7%), MAMMA MIA! (4.5%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (3.9%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (2.7%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (2.7%), BORN YESTERDAY (2.6%), CHICAGO (2.3%), THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON (2.0%), MEMPHIS (1.9%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1.6%), MARY POPPINS (0.9%), THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES (0.8%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (0.1%), GOOD PEOPLE (0.1%),
Down for the week was: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (-17.9%), LOMBARDI">LOMBARDI (-11.0%), CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (-6.2%), BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGDHAD ZOO (-6.1%), JERSEY BOYS (-4.9%), BABY IT'S YOU! (-4.1%), ARCADIA">ARCADIA (-4.0%), THE PEOPLE IN THE PICTURE (-3.8%), THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (-3.5%), GHETTO KLOWN (-2.1%), SISTER ACT (-1.2%), ANYTHING GOES (-1.0%), THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT (-0.5%), WICKED">WICKED (-0.3%), THE LION KING (-0.1%),