Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s highly-anticipated Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, officially opened on Broadway this past Thursday. On Friday night, we went to check out the show, and it was just as terrific as the early reviews had suggested. A musical created by the guys behind South Park, in collaboration with the co-creator of Avenue Q, was sure to be shocking but no one was certain it would be good. It’s beyond that. It’s great.
I can’t imagine too many Mormons will be excited about the show, even though it’s not exactly a diatribe against the controversial religion. Much of the show’s Mormon satire is based around the relatively unusual history and doctrines of the Mormon church. It’s all played tongue-in-cheek, rather than mean-spirited. As an example, during one of several interludes on Mormon history, a faceless narrator accentuates the quizzical aspects: Jesus Christ really thought to visit “ancient” upstate New York? Joseph Smith really never showed those famous gold tablets to anyone? The church really expected African-Americans to believe that God didn’t want them to join until 1978? These points are addressed, but never pushed to an uncomfortable confrontation. Instead, the show is a breezy time, with memorable songs and a few show-stopping set pieces (one involving a nightmare in Hell, is a visual spectacle).
The show’s story revolves around two young missionaries, Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), who are sent to serve their mission in Uganda. Expecting The Lion King, these two are shocked to discover a village overrun with violence, poverty, and AIDS. Price and Cunningham believe that The Book of Mormon can answer all of life’s problems, but what should they do, when they encounter people that have little connection or care for this “All-American religion.” Price and Cunningham each experience their own personal evolution, with Price inserting his love of pop culture into his teachings and Cunningham having significant doubts about his faith. Nikki M. James gives a star-making performance as Nabalungi, the young villager who tries to give Price and Cunningham the benefit of the doubt, with hopes of finding sanctuary in Salt Lake City. It’s her performance that anchors the entire production, and unites a talented ensemble cast.
If you’ve followed the career of Parker and Stone, you know that it’s never safe to bet against them. Despite the occasional misstep (Orgazmo, That’s My Bush!) the duo often matches their audacity with true ingenuity and talent. Who would have thought that South Park would make it to Season 15, and still going strong? Who would have thought that the 1999 South Park movie would not only be great, but also earn an Oscar nomination? Who have thought that their first Broadway show would end up being a surefire Tony Awards contender?