On stage, there is a blonde, long-haired Jesus with an accent straight from the America South: “Ah am Jesus.” There’s is a tap-dancing line of chorus boys who happen to be Mormon missionaries. As you may have heard, there’s a cheery song about AIDS, starvation and genital mutilation. And I still haven’t given away the most outrageous and funniest parts.
Does The Book of Mormon live up to its over-the-top pre-opening praise? Amazingly, yes.
This improbable musical about two Mormons on a mission to Africa is wildly inventive and endlessly funny. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, have written a skewering book with irreverent lyrics, and wrapped them in a huge, joyful, uncynical embrace of big, bold Broadway music and choreography. Like The Producers – Book of Mormon is just as hilarious but smarter – this is an audience-pleasing show that challenges good taste and social respectability.
The thin plot is a buddy comedy about Kevin and Arnold – officially known as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham – who are sent to Uganda on the mission that every good Mormon man makes as a rite of passage. We meet them in the first song, in which rows of Mormons in identical short-sleeved white shirts and toothy smiles ring doorbells proselyting for their religion, singing:
Two by two we go door to door / ‘Cause God loves Mormons and He wants some more.
Kevin (Andrew Rannells), rigid and clean-cut, would rather be missioning in Orlando. Arnold (Josh Gad) is curly-haired, chubby, a good-hearted loser and Star Trek geek. When this mismatched pair arrives in Africa, they are greeted by a half-dozen other Mormons who have not made a single convert. And no wonder.
This is where the African villagers deliver the show’s already notorious song, describing AIDS and other blights, each happily-sung calamity followed by a chorus of “Hasa Diga Eebowai!” a phrase that just makes them feel better. The words translate, the shocked Mormons learn, as “Fuck You, God.” You can’t argue with the Africans’ logic.
That shockingly hilarious song comes early on, and you wonder how the show can sustain such a high level of comedy and energy. But it very nearly does, with one riotous song after another, tackling nearly every Broadway genre from romantic ballads to toe-tappers.
Soon all the Mormon missionaries are singing about how to squelch uncomfortable feelings – like maybe being gay. As cheerfully as the Africans, those white boys are dancing, clapping and singing, “Turn It Off / Like A Light Switch.” The Book of Mormon is loaded with comic surprises, so I won’t tell you more about the light-switch song or its unexpected visual joke.
Rannells and Gad (he played Jake Gyllenhaal’s schlubby brother in Love and Other Drugs) are in sync with the musical’s odd sensibility of jubilant irreverence. And the show is pretty cynical about religion. The South Park guys have always depicted Mormons as extremely nice people. (Check out the great South Park episode, “All About the Mormons.”) Mormonism itself is something else, and the show is merciless about its mind-boggling lapses.
You know how some people can insult you with such smiling warmth you hardly notice? That’s the show’s approach to Mormonism, beginning with a Prologue explaining that the religion began after an angel appeared to Joseph Smith in “ancient upstate New York.” When Arnold starts reading the Book of Mormon to the Africans, he stops at the section that says blacks are cursed. But in its typical, crafty way, the show circles back. Kevin sings a rousing song of faith called “I Believe,” which sounds like the kind of soaring ballad that could become a hit for any Christian singer unless you listen to the lyrics, like:
And I belie-e-e-ve / That in 1978 God changed His mind about black people / I belie-e-e-ve …
Every small touch works, including the painted backdrop of Salt Lake City and its Tabernacle, surrounded by signs for Wal-mart and McDonalds. Later Kevin dreams of Orlando and a Disney castle that looks suspiciously like that Mormon Tabernacle.
“You have brought ridicule down on Latter-day Saints,” a church honcho says when the Africans reenact Arnold’s variation on the Book of Mormon, which includes Joseph Smith having sex with a frog. Maybe a little ridicule. But there is nothing mean-spirited here, just a great silly-smart Broadway show.