Wednesday, March 9, 2011



sings a chorus of Ugandan villagers in rapturous jubilation. This uproariously vulgar exclamation is the English translation of a village saying, 'Hasa Diga Ebowhy' which they say anytime something unfortunate befalls them.

The Hukuna Matata-esque phrase makes their day-to-day lives seem better; it gives them a coping mechanism for the constant hurdles they have to jump. Hurdles unimaginable to us. That is the genius of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park and Team America: World Police. Throughout their comic careers, Stone and Parker have unapologetically tackled real-world issues with vulgarity, sophomoric humor, and brutal honesty. Although sometimes offensive, their work is always truthful and insightful.

In The Book of Mormon, currently in previews at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, many many moments are crammed full of that signature style of humor that millions have come to cherish. However, amidst that cutting-edge satire lies a palpable layer of unfortunate, typical musical theatre sappiness. I imagine the goal behind this choice, as evidenced by the parody nature of the score, is to poke fun at the traditional American musical. But in accomplishing this effort, an uncomfortable amount of forced sentimentality seeps into the production.

This show is rather reminiscent of Monty Python's Spamalot, however The Book of Mormon is a much stronger piece. Not only is The Book of Mormon completely original, but its humor comes almost entirely from character and situation rather than drippy nostalgia. Co-creator of The Book of Mormon, Robert Lopez, once used the power of nostalgia to great effect in Avenue Q by taking audience expectation and forcefully chucking it out the window. On originality, Stone and Parker should be commended for creating such a successful first stage attempt. However, musicals are nothing new to the South Park duo. Every one of their cinematic endeavors has been a musical thus far. South Park, Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Team America: World Police, and (obviously) Cannibal The Musical all used character-based songs to drive the plot - to hilarious effect.

After the show, a friend of mine asked me, "Why isn't The Book of Mormon a movie?"

I honestly thought the same thing for a while, but the answer actually came to me while watching 'F*ck You, God!', the song I mentioned above. Theatre is very much about community. Each audience member, for a few hours, becomes one with their neighbors and one with every actor onstage. One of the most satisfying communal theatrical sensations is guilty laughter. In 1979, audiences got a taste of the guilt giggles from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, specifically the Act I finale, 'A Little Priest'. An audience that had been used to the warmth of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin were now listening intently to a light waltz about cannibalism - and actually found themselves laughing at it.
Dirty, right?

Forty years later, audiences are having the same experience. Only now, the stakes have been raised. We're laughing guiltily at upbeat musical numbers about blasphemy, AIDS, and female circumcision. And boy does it feel amazing to let your hair down for a few hours. I can confidently assert that film cannot properly recreate that wonderful experience. Watching real-life people say/sing these heinous things right in front of you brings the guilt guffaws to a whole new level.

So, what's the story?
Since the moment this production was announced, there has been widespread speculation as to what The Book of Mormon is actually about. A few years ago, South Park aired an episode ridiculing the history of Mormonism. That happens here too, but only lightly, and it is in no way integral to the central plot. Without giving much away, I can tell you that the story revolves around two buddy cop missionaries, the upright Elder Price and the eager, but incompetent Elder Cunningham, and their mission assignment to Uganda. There they find that Africa is actually nothing like the Lion King. Hilarity ensues.

While The Book of Mormon's score is not the catchiest of the creators' musical endeavors (it is catchy...just not the catchiest), it is most definitely the funniest. The clever lyrics are nothing short of perfect. I was particularly tickled by any lyric referencing the great city or Orlando, Florida. The magnificent songs are the great strength of this show. But the book...The book is only just all right. The dialogue effectively strings together the songs, but in the process, brings down the energy of the show. And for such a seemingly simple plot, there is many a tire-bursting plot hole. Most of the big laughs come from the musical numbers (which I found terribly surprising, given Stone and Parker's gift for silly dialogue), masterfully choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who also directed the show alongside Trey Parker.

The design is crowded. The Eugene O'Neill Theatre was not built to house large musicals. Recent offerings like John Doyle's actor-musician staging of Sweeney Todd and Spring Awakening were sparsely decorated, well lit, and very powerful. With the majority of the action taking place in a Ugandan village, the stage is covered in muddy platforms, huts, and general disarray. Perhaps scenic designer, Scott Pask was going for jungle chaos. A valiant effort, indeed, but to quote Robert Lopez's Tony Award-winning Avenue Q, "There's a fine, fine line..." between staged chaos and a bona fide hot mess. The lighting design by Brian MacDevitt was actually quite lovely - deftly discovering the shimmer through the grime.

Among the principal performers, only one actor emerges as superb. As Elder Price, Andrew Rannells brings youthful earnestness and a certain 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' attitude that I found immensely appealing. As the quintessential Mormon stereotype, Rannells's central performance is an exemplary model of how being fundamentally offensive can be extremely likable. Josh Gad as Elder Cunningham, however, puts of a facade of weirdness, and watching him was somewhat uncomfortable. The vibe I think he was trying to create is that of a theatrical Jud Apatow character, but that is neither the humor of the stage nor of South Park. It just doesn't work. Nikki M. James as Nabalungi, a young forward-thinking village girl, sings beautifully, but is a little too nice. In the actress's defense, it must be said that her story line is somewhat weak, and offers her only the occasional opportunity to have edge.

The binding that holds The Book of Mormon together, however, is the stellar ensemble. The Mormon missionaries and Ugandan villagers all bring such unique personalities to the table, while still remaining unified within their groups. Their work is skinny-jeans-tight, and always hysterical.

The Book of Mormon burst onto Broadway with the disadvantage of enormously high expectation. Audiences are expecting the same unapologetic, flesh-gnawing humor they get weekly from South Park. But does The Book of Mormon deliver it? Not quite. If South Park was Dr. Pepper, The Book of Mormon would be its Mr. Pibb - with a little more water and a lot more sugar. But like even the worst Shakespeare or Sondheim, The Book of Mormon still manages to triumph over most of its contemporary musical comedy competitors - Many of whom are still contritely taking a page from The Book of Neil Simon.

And later this year when the cast recording is released, and young children start jubilantly exclaiming


up to the sky, I know who I'll be blaming.


The Book of Mormon plays Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre