Postcard from Broadway: ‘The Book of Mormon’

By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater

In the world of The Book of Mormon, Jesus has a Southern accent and flowing blond hair. In the world of The Book of Mormon, Orlando is the most glorious place on earth. In the world of The Book of Mormon, a song called “I Am Africa” is sung by the whitest boys you have ever seen.

But despite the outrageous absurdities and the wild irreverence of this most eye-poppingly hilarious of Broadway musicals, The Book of Mormon has sweetness on its side – sweetness and a cold-sober undercurrent showing that co-creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone have more on their mind than laughs.

For all the ballyhoo surrounding this first Broadway show by the creators of South Park – teamed here with the talented composer of Avenue QThe Book of Mormon doesn’t have a mean bone in its body (except perhaps toward an African warlord who is busy mutilating girls all over northern Uganda, and he deserves any meanness thrust upon him).

Sure, the show is less than starry-eyed toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and especially toward a church history that, face it, leans toward the bizarre. (What religion’s doesn’t?)

But this new musical is blessed with such an amiable nature that somehow you can listen to its more scurrilous blasphemy and not get your britches tied up in a knot. It’s one of the most upbeat shows ever.

Anybody paying attention to Broadway in the past few weeks knows the story of The Book of Mormon – about two wide-eyed 19-year-old missionaries, complete with ties and geeky short-sleeved white shirts and dispatched to Uganda to convert the African people. Elder Price (the fantastically buoyant Andrew Rannells) feels as if he’s gotten the shaft: His cohorts were sent to upscale realms like France and Norway, and all he wanted was his favorite place in the world, Orlando. Instead he and his companion, the very strange Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad, wildly entertaining), find themselves in northern Uganda, and the first thing they see is a very dead mule being dragged across the road.

It turns out, of course, that the Ugandan villagers have larger problems on their minds – AIDS, genital mutilation, a warlord who less likely to listen to somebody than to shoot him in the face. And at the same time that you’re roaring at the writers’ cleverness and astonished at their gall, somewhere deep inside you may be wondering at the astounding stupidity and arrogance of a people who can send sheltered teenagers off to solve the tribulations of the world.

Don’t dwell on it, though, because you might miss the rest of the concoction – the tributes to other Broadway musicals (I caught The Sound of Music, The King and I and Annie, along with the requisite Lion King); the conflation of eight or nine grinning Mormon teenagers with a glitter-spangled boy band; the dopey, hilarious choreography (by co-director Casey Nicholaw) that puts the missionaries, of course, in taps.

Those chorus boys may be the hardest working ensemble on Broadway: They play not only the missionaries but a handful of Mormon forefathers, a couple of mothers and a stageful of devils (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”). Rory O’Malley is a stitch as their white-bread leader, Elder McKinley, who has found a way to turn off his own troubling feelings, while Tony-winner Nikki M. James makes an appealing angelic Nabulungi, the most willing of the Ugandan prospects. And, as a member of the ensemble, former Orlandoan Michael James Scott has been granted one of the production’s most shameless and funniest running jokes.

Lopez, who with his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote the terrific Finding Nemo musical at Orlando’s Animal Kingdom, has clearly shaped the show’s songs, which have the high exuberance of his work in Avenue Q.  You’ll leave singing “I Believe” even if you can’t quite get your tongue around the line “And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people …”

And that same sweet, daft giddiness runs through The Book of Mormon, from the overblown choral music that starts it off to the ignoble last line (thank you, Michael James Scott). I can’t speak for the religious or for those who are easily offended. But for the rest of us, The Book of Mormon is heaven on earth.

‘The Book of Mormon’
Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone.
Where: Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 W. 49th St., New York City.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Cost: $69-$142.
Call: 212-239-6200.

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