Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Nine Tonys Can’t Be Wrong: The Book Of Mormon

If the idea behind The Book of Mormon – the creators of Comedy Central’s South Park doing a Broadway musical about Mormon missionaries – sounds inherently ridiculous, it is. But it’s also a sparkling piece of theater.

Working with Robert Lopez, who penned the decidedly adult puppet-driven musical Avenue Q, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, Team America: World Police) have created a fiendishly fantastic production. The Book of Mormon is chock full of jokes, excellently staged, and brilliantly performed. It is also, as many of Parker and Stone’s other works have been, fairly offensive. These are men who exceed at delivering sharp social commentary using very blunt instruments.

At the outset of Book of Mormon, we see a group of eager young Mormon missionaries waiting to be paired up and assigned their two-year missions. Among them is Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), a polished poster-boy for the faith, who has gotten most everything he wants in life, and now wants to be sent to the promised land – Orlando. However, he soon finds himself paired with the slovenly misfit Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) waiting to be shipped off to Uganda.

The relationship that develops between Elders Price and Cunningham is delightful to watch, as Elder Price longs for accolades and praise and Elder Cunningham wants friendship and largely, acceptance. The buddy song “You And Me (But Mostly Me)” is superbly staged so Elder Cunningham finds he’s disappearing behind the stage curtain as the song becomes more and more about Elder Price.

Indeed the staging of the musical is quite terrific, from one of the opening numbers, “Hello!”, where we see multiple missionaries ringing doorbells and issuing their elevator pitches, to the infectious clap/tap number “Turn It Off,” a call to bury one’s feelings and thoughts, especially if those thoughts are gay. This may be the most excellent number of the show (not just because it features The Clapper), but to say that would be shortchanging other numbers like “I Am Africa,” a near send-up of “We Are The World,” which literally pokes fun at U2’s Bono, or “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which includes anthropomorphic cups of coffee.

What Parker, Stone, and Lopez do so successfully is utilize songs to tell jokes. When Elder Price sings “Orlando,” he’s not just singing to express his want to go to his ideal location, he’s also borrowing strains from Annie’s “Tomorrow.” Similarly, much fun is poked at The Lion King, specifically the song “Hakuna Matata” and the idea that a simple melody could help ease some of Africa’s very real problems.

Much of the musical’s story centers around the missionaries’ attempts to teach the villagers about their faith, and the prickly and unsettling comedy comes from the disparity between how the missionaries and how the villagers understand and view the world. Here, both the characters of the missionaries and the villagers are heightened to comedic effect, making their interplay more potent. Despite a certain amount of heightening, the show is laden with real “big ideas,” like strict literal interpretations of religious stories and symbols versus interpreting these things as metaphors. There is some discussion of whether Salt Lake City is a real place or just a fantasy. Of course, one man’s Salt Lake City may be another man’s Orlando.

To be certain, there is some tough stuff in The Book Of Mormon – Africa’s AIDS epidemic, genital mutilation, not to mention the heresy of inserting Star Wars and Star Trek characters into religious histories. These are not usually the touchstones of smash musical comedies. But what really makes the production work is the tremendous performances. Rannells is pitch-perfect (and likely actually pitch-perfect) as Elder Price, and Nikki M. James, playing a daughter in the village, knocks her songs out of the park (and has the Tony to prove it). Gad brings Elder Cunningham to life with the terrific use of his voice, occasionally issuing a girlish squeal, summoning deep manly tones, or utilizing nervous nerdy laughter.

What makes The Book Of Mormon so successful is that it takes typical musical conventions and plies them with jokes. People of most any faith will certainly find some of the content objectionable, but for the most part things are done to serve the story and are not done with malice. The jokes may not be of the most subtle variety, but the show would surely be more offensive if it wasn’t so tremendously well done.

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