The Book of Mormon
"Change" was the mantra that brought Barack Obama into office; though it hasn’t been heard much of since. (Not that it is the President’s fault, but that’s another story.) It does, though, inform what is the freshest and funniest musical of his Presidency - "The Book of Mormon," which took New York by storm two years ago and is doing the same in London (where it recently opened) and across the country where its national tour is most happily performing missionary work. It just set down at the Opera House through April 28 for a run that (from the sounds of things) could easily stay until, say, hell freezes.
What starts out as a rude and crude send-up of the most curious and American of religions - Mormonism - deftly becomes an expression of how change is necessary for growth. In other words, how new worlds emerge from old ones, and, joyfully, move to the future. Not to make "The Book of Mormon" sound like some sort of agenda-driven New Age polemic; far from it. This is a musical by the guys who made "South Park."
If it wasn’t so clever, it would be too over the top and one-note. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone have a knack to maintain the cartoony tone, even as they make jokes about AIDS, female circumcision, raping babies, famine and Mormon mythology; as well as possessing a keen sense of the musical form (as they showed in their 1999 animated hit "South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut"). They were born to write musicals as much as Rodgers and Hammerstein were. Indeed, they cleverly reference that team’s work, but with fart jokes. Welcome to the 21st century.
Early on much of the cheeky fun comes at the expense of the Mormon culture - its rigidity, wholesomeness and downright loony beginnings are hilariously parodied. Not, though, with a mean-spiritedness; but with the kind of affection that great cartoonish musicals (from "Li’l Abner" to "It’s A Bird! It’s A Plane! It’s Superman!") do so effectively.
This is the key to the show’s success. It pokes fun at a culture (some may say cult), but gives it both human and comic dimensions. The journey that these Mormon missionaries take is one towards self-discovery; one that brings them to an AIDS-plagued Ugandan village being terrorized by renegade military commandoes bent on their own brand of female oppression. The villagers have their own cynical attitude towards their plight, which they express in a hilarious term that leaves the missionaries blushing (the English translation is "Fuck you, God, in the ass, mouth, and cunt!"); and, from the look of things, they have every right to express it.
Coming into their world are two bright-faced missionaries: Elder Price (an outstanding Mark Evans), an optimistic go-getter with a toothy smile of an infomercial spokesperson, and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), his slovenly partner, something of an outcast in the picture-perfect Salt Lake culture. Thrown together, they are sent to this Uganda village where their luggage is immediately stolen and they’re told that if the mosquitoes and lions won’t get them, a guerrilla commando (named General Butt-Fucking-Naked) will. Their fellow missionaries live in a world of denial (hilariously expressed in "Turn It Off"), with little hope of finding converts amongst the villagers. Elder Price wants out - dreaming of being transferred to Orlando, his favorite place on Earth. When the voice of God addresses him in a moment of crisis, he thinks it’s Mickey Mouse welcoming him to the Magic Kingdom.
Instead, he ends up in hell in one of the numerous and delightful musical-comedy turns the musical takes. Lovers of "South Park" know the show can often be a cultural mash-up in which anyone from Jesus to Sally Struthers can make an appearance. In this number, Elder Price is chased by giant Starbucks cups and comes across Hitler, Ghenghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnnie Cochran in a blood-red, Mormon vision of hell, presided over by the Devil in a winged costume that would be the envy of anyone at a Halloween parade.
The vision (and the show itself) is not without an element of camp. (Catch the drag queens.) Indeed, what made the "South Park" musical film and this show so invigorating is how it takes the boisterousness, freewheeling elements of musical-comedy and put them in settings and situations befitting more serious dramas. There was Mormon mythology in "Angels in America" and genocide in "Ruined," but what Stone and Parker (along with composer Robert Lopez and co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw) do is push the envelope to such an absurd level that you can’t help but laugh. There is a synergy between the dark topics and the brash tone that gives the show an exhilarating lift.
Again, you likely need to like the no-holes-barred style that Stone and Parker bring to "South Park" to enjoy "The Book of Mormon." Here the humor is so much like that series, you expect Cartman to make a cameo. But they also evoke the tradition of musicals in much the same way "The Producers" and "Spamalot" did so well: be self-referential without being self-conscious. The form gives the team license to go anywhere in the pursuit of a laugh; but also gives the story an uplift with its underdog politics and embrace of the promise of tomorrow. You kind-of fall in love with everybody on stage (including General Butt-Fucking-Naked).
There isn’t a wasted moment in the staging (co-directed by Stone and Nicholaw) - the jokes are perfectly placed and the dances burst with Michael Kidd-like energy. It is difficult, really, to find any fault with this production - its cartoonish designs (set design by Scott Pask, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Brian MacDevitt and sound design by Brian Ronan.); its likeable score; its pin-point staging; and delightful cast. Leading them are Christopher John O’Neill as the slug that captures the imagination of the Ugandan villagers with his hilarious theology. Mark Evans has the square-jawed look and manner of a Romney son; and he’s quite endearing at it. As is Samantha Marie Ware (as Nabulungi), who brings heart to her dreamy ode to Salt Lake City. Grey Henson gives a post-modern twist to the kind of role that brings to mind Paul Lynde. As for everyone else, well, just get a ticket to see this gifted ensemble at work.
That’s an iffy situation, given the demand for tickets. But either pay the premium price or try the daily lottery for $25 tickets. My advice - stop reading this and get in line.
"The Book of Mormon" continues through Apr. 28, 2013 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit Broadway in Boston/The Book of Mormon website.