The handshake of peace? Mark Evans as Elder Price and Derrick Williams as General Something-Completely-Unmentionable in The Book of Mormon. All photos by Joan Marcus
The musical The Book of Mormon won nine Tony Awards on Broadway. And the touring show has nearly sold out its current run at the Winspear Opera House. But along with such acclaim and popularity, The Book of Mormon has earned a reputation for its obscene humor. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says, it’s all true.
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The Book of Mormon is a remarkable achievement.
No, really. The creators of the cartoon series South Park and the musical Avenue Q take two young Mormon missionaries and send them to poverty-stricken, AIDS-afflicted Uganda. It’s another case of clean-cut American innocents abroad, stumbling over real-world problems. Along the way, the musical manages to mix together a savage mockery of religion with condescending jokes about Africa and female circumcision. But it also has lovable characters and big, splashy Broadway dance numbers. It shouldn’t work, but it does — quite splendidly. We get snickering, juvenile satire and happy, high-kicking showbiz.
This song, for instance, is a classic Broadway anthem. It’s a rousing ‘This is my moment!” number, a big declaration of self. The young Elder Price went into shock when he saw an African warlord shoot a man in the face. Price promptly stumbled off, giving up any thought of converting Ugandans. But now he comes back with renewed purpose:
“Now I must be completely devout.
I can’t have even one shred of doubt.
I believe that the Lord God created the universe
I believe that He sent his only Son to die for my sins.
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America.
I am a Mormon. And a Mormon just believes.”
That song — “I Believe,” from the Broadway cast recording — has become the show’s standout. That’s partly because it’s one of the few that doesn’t have obscene lyrics about hating God or having sex with frogs. That does make it easier to play on the radio or in karaoke bars. But it’s also because the song is both a soaring hymn and a spoof of blind faith.
Back when he started in the missionary school, Elder Price was the golden boy. So he’s appalled he’s even in Uganda (which, of course, is depicted as a basket case, a complete disaster). Meanwhile, his partner, Elder Cunningham, is just happy to have a partner and a mission. He’s a lonely, pudgy screw-up who frantically makes up stuff when he panics. So when the frightened Price runs away after that face-shooting, it’s up to the clueless Cunningham to help the Ugandans. His inventive yet ludicrous efforts at preaching mash together Jesus with Hobbits and Death Stars.
Thus spaketh the Lord Vader: Christopher John O’Neill (right) as the Elder Cunningham preaching the word in The Book of Mormon
In their 15 years of creating South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made no secret of their reductive and cheerfully sardonic atheism. They don’t see any real difference between established religions and Elder Cunningham’s fan-boy fantasies about Star Wars. Parker and Stone do not offer a particularly profound take-down of spiritual faith. To them, all of religion is just silly when it’s not actively repressive, even destructive. Given this battle, though, between such useless beliefs and the seriously violent, real-world problems the boys face, the show’s ending is weak. There’s an unconvincing face-off with the warlord (Derrick Williams), plus a resolution that ‘solves’ some of the Ugandans faith-based issues but not, oh, the fact that, as one declares, “80 percent of us have AIDS.”
Where Parker and Stone (and their collaborator, composer Robert Lopez) truly excel is not mocking religion but ripping showbiz. This has long been true of South Park. American popular culture — whether that’s rock ‘n’ roll or Disneyworld or Broadway or Hollywood celebrity worship — is the great, fat target that keeps heaving itself back for more. American Christianity has often become just another form of fantasy entertainment, so they push that to the inevitable ends, lampooning hard rock anthems as well as The Lion King and its fuzzy-wuzzy animal-spiritual view of Africa. For Broadway fans, there’s even a truly scurrilous send-up of the “Small House of Uncle Thomas’ from The King and I.
As a result, the second act of The Book of Mormon achieves a sublime level of raunchy humor — especially when the Ugandans stage their own version of Cunningham’s Star Wars theology. We even visit a favorite, afterlife hotspot of South Park: Hell. Price is so guilt-ridden for his flight from responsibility, he is sent back to a childhood memory, familiar to any South Park viewer, populated as it is with dancing skeletons, Jews, Catholics and Johnny Cochran:
“Down, down thy soul is cast
From the earth whenceforth ye fell
The path of fire leads thee
To Spooky Mormon Hell Dream!”
It’s hard to overstate how accomplished this touring production is. Co-directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw, it’s a huge undertaking, involving 37 performers, something one rarely sees even on Broadway these days. The leads are exceptional: Mark Evans blends the right mix of gleaming earnestness, confidence and self-love (why not? The goals of his faith and his career advancement are one). As the dweebish Cunningham, Christopher John O’Neill handles the sweet-Jonah-Hill duties with ease while uncorking unexpectedly adept skills at dancing and singing. For her part, Samantha Marie Ware has an unearthly powerful singing voice — as the African female who first falls for the Mormon’s proselytizing. One of the show’s disturbing weaknesses is its smug condescension towards Africans, who are treated as either wrecks, monsters or jokes. But Ware takes what could be an embarrassing role and delivers it with grace and emotional openness.
At intermission, I stood in the Winspear lobby counting the people walking out. The Lexus Broadway Series has seen sizable audience exits from such shows as Spring Awakening and August: Osage County. But during the opening night of The Book of Mormon, barely a handful left. Perhaps it’s the South Park connection; people knew what they’d be getting. Or perhaps that first Lexus season three years ago was a warning flag to many Dallas theatergoers. The Lexus series will present mature material.
But as I told my 23-year-old offspring as we stood there, earlier seasons had sex and drugs and profanity. This show tops them all with explicit blasphemy and cheap cynicism.
Yeah, came the response, but big show tunes make a big difference.
Even as it savages Broadway’s traditional ethos of sunny, secular uplift, The Book of Mormon‘s real faith lies in singing and tap-dancing and cracking jokes and presenting a terrific touring production.
For me, personally? It was something of a revelation.