All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The prevailing impression might be that “The Book of Mormon,” the 2011 Tony-winning musical by “South Park” scamps Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is savagely irreverent and pierces religion and the hypocrisy that often accompanies it to the core.
That impression would be false.
While “The Book of Mormon” is consistently funny and chocked with jokes, sight gags, goofy situations, and comic characters galore, it stays pretty much at the snarky, sophomoric level of “South Park” and rarely goes for the throat or even the more than mildly satirical.
Parker and Stone’s humor is enough to keep you entertained, and there are plenty of sequences, the results of an X-ray for example, that may trigger sudden convulsive guffaws, but it would be a mistake to expect “The Book of Mormon” to be a mortal sinner’s lampoon of faith and the stories that are told to promote it.
Indeed, Parker, Stone, their musical colleague Robert Lopez, and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw have a field day making deliciously politically incorrect fun of Mormons, Africans, fat people, dumb people, gays, and several other usually sacrosanct targets, but they do it for the sake of laughs and have no deep commentary or disapproval in mind.
Laughs are good. Laughing at sacred cows is better. Laughing at smart, mischievously conceived material is the best, and that’s what “The Book of Mormon” offers by the oodle.
In terms of tearing Mormonism or religion in general to shreds, “The Book of Mormon” not only steers clear of heresy but actually puts faith in perspective when Zurin Villanueva, as a rural African villager, archly points out it’s a metaphor and when the show has a finale that upholds the potential value of holy rolling.
Parker and Stone don’t have to be mean or incisive. They get a world of mileage by using the familiar and the stereotypical. And by settling for naughty ridicule without having to go headlong into satire.
After an introduction in which we see Jesus, post-resurrection, i.e. latter day, and with a slight country accent, visiting America and showing second century Jews who sailed from Israel in 326 A.D. to arrive in Upstate New York how to protect the gold plates that contain the third testament to scriptures, the one Joseph Smith will discover in the 19th century, a bright-eyed eager young lad in white short-sleeve shirt and neat black tie, pushes a doorbell and begins the song, “Hello,” in which a Mormon missionary tells an unsuspecting homeowner how a free copy of the Book of Mormon can change his or her life.
The first doorbell ringer is joined by a legion of others, and familiarity kicks in. So does merriment. The image of the enthusiastic Mormon youth peddling his doctrine door-to-door is engrained in American culture, as is the patter he would use to proselytize. (When I was a teenager, I invited two Mormon missionaries into my house, not to hear their spiel about conversion, but to tell them they were canvassing a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur, and they might be better off crossing Godfrey Avenue and talking to folks in Olney. I also noticed, with a chuckle, that the Church of Latter Day Saints advertises in the “Book of Mormon” Playbill. Shows what shrewd marketers they are.)
“Hello” sets the tone for “The Book of Mormon.” You know from its vibrant sunniness the show is going to trade on the naivety of the zealous young missionary.
The most zealous of the latest class of acolytes is Elder Kevin Price, a Boy Scout among Mormons who believes in the tenets of his church and is confident he can recruit dozens to the fold.
Elder Price is Parker and Stone’s standard for the clean-cut, determined all-American boy, and he wants to serve his faith in the city he loves best, Orlando. He prays to the Heavenly Father for that challenging assignment, but deities work in mysterious ways, and Kevin is sent to join the Mormon missionaries in Uganda. Making matters worse, he’s saddled with the clumsiest, sloppiest, and least devout graduate in his class, Elder Cunningham, as a partner whose side he is not permitted to leave by one of the rules in the Mormon code. I can hear Lopez’s “Avenue Q” style in the rhythm and lyrics of the song Price and Cunningham sing to celebrate their pairing, “You and Me (But Mostly Me).”
The Ugandan village to which the boys are assigned is in need of salvation.
Almost every inhabitant is riddled with AIDS, including the doctor and a man who repeatedly complains about having maggots in his scrotum. The town is under siege by a self-appointed vigilante who calls himself General Butt F***ing Naked, a tribute to the attire he prefers while executing the disobedient. The general seeks to forcefully circumcise all of the village women, including the one AIDS-free virgin, Nabulungi, who believes she has found a way to text her friends when she buys an old portable typewriter at a flea market.
Superstition reigns in the village. One man wants to have sex with a baby because he’s heard it’s a cure for AIDS. One woman enters another’s home and announces, “Your mud hut is beautiful.” Illiteracy is universal. Ignorance is rife. Wardrobes look like cast-offs from American clothing donation bins. Fear of gun-toting thugs is unanimous.
Thank goodness these people are about to receive the benefit of Mormon missionaries.
Of course, the Africans are accustomed to seeing missionaries and can rattle off the denominations that have come to convert them during the last decade or so. They welcome Elders Price and Cunningham by stealing their luggage, the haul being primarily short-sleeve white shirts and religious pamphlets.
You can see Parker, Stone, and Lopez don’t miss a trick. They even show contrasting ways the Ugandans and the Mormons handle adversity.
The Africans stoically look toward the heavens and say “Hasa Dinga Eebowai,” which they have Cunningham and Price doing with reckless and stress-freeing abandon until someone tells Elder Price the phrase translates to “Screw you, God.” The Mormons that Price and Cunningham meet at the house missionaries share in the Church’s District #9 practice good old-fashioned denial. Grey Henson, as the house leader, Elder McKinley, leads a funny, vivacious dance number, “Turn It Off” in which he and other acolytes mime clicking an electrical switch and tell how they ward off matters than may get them down, like having zero conversions, for instance.
Elder McKinley has a particular burden. He has to fight off his attraction to men with all of those cute Mormons lurking about. Henson is especially funny in fending off his inclination and funnier when a flounce or a swish gives him away. (Good thing “The Book of Mormon” was written in 2011. In today’s Uganda, McKinley could be put to death for being homosexual.)
Elder Price is undaunted by the myriad obstacles that face him. He is a dedicated crusader, a firm believer, and a determined leader who intends to show his brethren the way to persuade the most stubborn, jaded, or afflicted Ugandan. Elder Cunningham is also undaunted because he is unaffected by his surroundings and is happy to have an adventure away from home and a companion Mormon rules forbid to flee from him . The inept Cunningham looks at the soldierly Elder Price as his best friend.
The Ugandans are not much receptive to what they hear. They are more worried about General Butt,etc. than they are about their souls or inner peace. Elder Price will only get a foothold if he can figure a way to extract or eliminate maggots from a scrotum and relieve other plagues and plights that beset his assigned candidates for conversion.
Elder Cunningham, oafish as he is, has better success. As a pathological liar, he has no scruples about making things up. When he comes to a passage in the Book of Mormon that tells how angels turned those resistant to Jesus’s teachings black, he quickly turns the hue to yellow, upon hearing which the Africans all taunt and say nasty things about the Chinese. When the afflicted man goes to find a baby to molest, Elder Cunningham staves him off by citing a verse from the Book of Mormon that tells how Joseph Smith found relief from venereal discomfort by boinking a frog.
Whopper after whopper fascinates and arrests the Ugandans. Elder Cunningham is making an impression. Nabulungi is motivated to take out her typewriter and “text” all of her friends about her plans to go to the paradise that is “Salt-a Lake-a Cit-tee.” She is also taken with Elder Cunningham and her baptism by immersion, a first for both the acolyte and the convert, is discussed as if it is a sexual deflowering.
You see the mass and level of the jokes and set-ups. Parker and Stone are relentless in their invention. Casey Nicholaw and “The Book of Mormon” cast are just as adept at milking every bit of comedy and keeping their audience thoroughly amused.
The second act in particular shows Nicholaw’s mettle as a director , with Parker, and choreographer. His tap dance for the sublimating Mormon lads, and his “Lion King” antics in Act One are priceless, but Nicholaw tops himself with some of the numbers that dominate Act Two.
Two numbers vie for being Nicholaw’s masterpiece.
Elder Price’s “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is rollicking display of pitchfork-wielding devils pushing Price to the eternal flames as miscreants like Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochrane welcome him to their diabolical fold, Cochrane because he got O.J. acquitted.
All have fun is showing the fate that awaits the evil, including Mormons who desert their partners, want to give up on their mission, and begin to doubt the veracity of everything in The Book of Mormon.
The other marvelous and marvelously hilarious number is “Joseph Smith American Moses,” a musical skit the 20 Ugandans Elder Cunningham baptizes perform for international Mormon leaders who come to give Cunningham and all the District #9 missionaries medals for outstanding work.
The leaders are a bit dismayed when the Africans, in 19th century garb and straw beards and wigs over their tribal togs, enact the scene of Joseph Smith porking the frog and succumbing to a terminal case of diarrhea, both fabrications of Elder Cunningham.
Meanwhile the sequence out-Hammersteins Hammerstein by making the “Little House of Uncle Thomas” segment of “The King and I” look tasteful and tame. Every moment of “Joseph Smith American Moses” seems inspired by both the god of ridicule and the god of comedy. Here,if anywhere, keen satire finds its way into “The Book of Mormon.”
In between the two extravaganzas, KJ Hippensteel entertains with comic assurance and a wonderfully acted combination of innocence and bravado as he “mans up” and decides to face General Butt,etc. in an effort to convert him and stop his terrorism of Nabulungi’s village.
His decision leads to two magnificently comic moments, Hippensteel’s singing an anthem, “I Believe,” that reveals some of the loonier tenets of Mormonism while boosting Elder Price’s commitment and confidence, and the General’s reaction to Price bursting into his secret outpost with his proposal.
The General does something that forces Price to see the village doctor and have something extracted from his insides, something we see in a brilliantly timed and uproariously funny X-ray.
“The Book of Mormon” may not have sharp teeth or bite into religion with fierceness and an intention to debunk everything from Jainism to Zoroastrianism. It is clever and fresh and naughty enough to elicit complicit belly laughs and approving nods of recognition.
KJ Hippensteel is a tyro as Elder Price. He captures the character’s boyish naivety, puerile hopefulness, and ironclad determination at the beginning of Parker and Stone’s show. He is equally adroit at showing Price’s disillusionment and, best of all, his total disdain and distrust of his church’s teachings.
Hippensteel, like most of his castmates, is a great dancer and can twist himself into all kinds of movements when Nicholaw’s choreography warrants.
Christopher John O’Neill appeals in a different way as Elder Cunningham. Portly with belly fat that can earn him the role of Bloody Mary, O’Neill has the grace and light touch of Jackie Gleason. He handles every dance step with aplomb.
O’Neill shows a different kind of eagerness from Hippensteel. Elder Cunningham wants to be liked and to have friends he can goof off around. O’Neill really shows Cunningham’s surprise and delight when he realizes the Ugandans are riveted to his relation of the Mormon testament, embellishments, fabrications and all.
Alexandra Ncube is a lovely Nabulungi, whose name Elder Cunningham mangles as Neutrogena and Nikki Minaj and other close but bizarre pronunciations.
Ncube has to be more sophisticated than most in her village while being virginal and a bit given to believing fairy tales.
She manages all aspects of her role well and is excellent in presenting the “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” number and leading the “Joseph Smith” pageant.
Stanley Wayne Mathis is one of the most reliable character actors and dancers on Broadway, and he brings his effortless gifts as an entertainer to “The Book of Mormon” as Nabulungi’s father, Mafala.
Corey Jones has authority and the right kind of swagger as the General. Ron Bohmer aces several parts that call for a Caucasian adult. Josh Breckenridge is funny as the doctor who copes with AIDS and treats Elder Price at a tender moment.
Grey Henson is a phenomenal dancer and leads the comedy sequences that involve Price and Cunningham’s fellow missionaries.
Nicholaw is helped by Scott Pask’s witty set, Ann Roth’s vast collection of costumes that suit missionaries, poor village folks, and armed rebels, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting that is particular funny during the “Turn It Off” number.
Unusually the sound in the Forrest was pitched at the right level and no one’s dialogue or lyrics were drowned out by inconsiderately hot mikes.
While mentioning the Forrest, it is easily one of the best houses in the country and definitely the finest in Philadelphia to see a show. The Shubert Organization, which owns the theater, and the Kimmel Center, which books it and controls the touring season in Philadelphia, earn shame that the good they do cannot redeem by letting the Forrest lie fallow for extended periods of time. Fie on both groups. The Academy of Music may have more seats and, therefore, be more appealing to producers who want to sell more tickets, but two fifths of its seats would be unacceptable to a discerning theatergoer, and it is not a theater, no matter what propaganda is put out saying it is. The Forrest has marvelous sight lines from every angle (except some extreme side seats in the back of the orchestra) and superior acoustics. If the Shuberts and the Kimmel can’t figure out how to book the house, they can at least rent it more often to someone who knows a good theater when they see one. I expect Philadelphians not to know what they’re doing. It’s dismaying when New Yorkers are just as dense.
“The Book of Mormon” runs through Sunday, September 14 at the magnificent Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $162 to $67 and can be ordered by calling 800-447-7400 or by visiting http://www.kimmelcenter.org or http://www.telecharge.com.