Any avid fan of South Park will know that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have a very evenhanded approach when covering issues of religion–universal satire. Their Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, co-written with Avenue Q and Frozen writer Robert Lopez, while not exactly an exception, is an earnest and frequently shrewd look at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The musical follows two young missionaries, Elders Price (David Larsen) and Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), as they are tasked with converting the citizens of an impoverished Ugandan village. Price is fairly self-centered, determined to make something of himself (to the extent that one of the songs is titled “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”). Cunningham is a compulsive liar who has never actually read the Book of Mormon, and proceeds to fabricate religious instruction based on his own cultural background (which apparently involves Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings). Meanwhile, the village suffers from the attentions of a warlord general (David Aron Damane) who is determined to circumcise all the women, a widespread AIDS epidemic, and unbelievable poverty. This musical is a comedy.
…’The Book of Mormon’ is simply brilliant, all the way through.
Framed by an enormous white gateway capped by a statue of the Angel Moroni (who gave the Book of Mormon to prophet Joseph Smith), the Mormon trainee missionaries begin by practicing house calls. The musical ends with the African converts doing the same, with some minor variation (“You have a lovely home” versus “You have a lovely mud hut,” for instance). In between is probably one of the best musical comedies ever produced.
It would be easy for The Book of Mormon to go for the cheap shots, but it’s stunningly sympathetic. The Mormon missionaries are, while fundamentally flawed, depicted as earnestly good people condemned merely by the incredible ignorance of their surroundings. A song like “I Am Africa,” in which the Mormons espouse their devotion to the land (and their superiority to its people) would be offensive without the sheer enthusiasm with which it is performed. Likewise, a song about baptism functioning as a double entendre for sex is simply hilarious because Strand and Candance Quarrels (who plays the village chief’s daughter Nabulungi) commit fully to the moment, without a hint of irony.
The voices in this production are simply incredible–the music follows a number of styles, but each main actor gets the opportunity to belt in full voice. This is in addition to some incredible dance numbers, including a full tap dance routine of Mormon missionaries, expertly choreographed by co-director Casey Nicholaw. The run of the show was unbelievably smooth, moving from one scene to the next without pause, hitting every comedic note with ease. I attribute this in part to co-director Trey Parker, also co-creator of the show and co-creator of South Park, whose work has consistently shown an ability to be funny without being mean.
This show may not be for everyone–the sense of humor involved is occasionally crass, and the religious irreverence may be offensive to some. But The Book of Mormon is simply brilliant, all the way through. It takes the very best of many Broadway musicals, and turns them into something even better, a funny and insightful look at the perils of ignorance, the virtue of belief, and the courage of understanding.
A note to all South Park fans: listen carefully to the opening narration of the story of The Book of Mormon. The voice may sound familiar.
Running Time: Approximately 2 and a half hours with 1 intermission.
Advisory: Contains profane language, sexual content, and violence.
Book of Mormon is playing through August 16, 2015 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566. For more information and for tickets click here.