There was reason behind the fact that I had not yet seen The Book of Mormon. The show, a pop culture lodestone and the apex theatrical event until it ran up against the wave of adoration over Hamilton, has been available for inspection since 2011. Its spell has spread near and far, selling out playhouses from coast to coast and places beyond brave enough to run it. It cleaned up at the Tonys, took home a Grammy, set record sales and continues to light critics’ hearts and pens aflutter.
The folks love it too of course, in toto, including everyone I know and the opening night crowd at the Kennedy Center Opera House, who issued an unequivocal standing ovation at its conclusion. The odds are highly in favor that you will love it too.
But there was reason behind the fact that I had not yet seen it. Or much of anything from the celebrated creator duo Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Nothing of theirs—from South Park to Team America —had ever appealed to me and the bits and pieces of their oeuvre that I’d caught a glimpse of never let those preconceptions down.
Add to that The Book of Mormon.
Yeah, I’m an outlier. I don’t get the fuss. And let’s put something to bed right off: It’s not subversive, outrageous or offensive as the moralists claim, as far as popular entertainment goes anyway. Maybe it’s radical for the typical Broadway show, but not for anyone who’s watched cable TV over the last 20 years. It’s pretty sweet, really. People are fundamentally missing the boat if they find themselves offended by its puerile shenanigans.
It’s also astronomically far from being “a work of genius,” “brilliantly conceived and executed,” or “pee-in-your-pants funny.” That last is the worst letdown of course. Or justification of my inner dial. And here it is: I don’t think the South Park guys are funny. The Book of Mormon has its chuckles moments, but it’s mostly kind of stupid. Tedious even.
Appreciation for humor is one of the most subjective responses we as humans have. I understand that. For me, when the smug alpha-Mormon Elder Price (Kevin Clay) first reveals in song that his dream missionary assignment is “Or-lan-do, your bright lights, your big dreams,” I react with a smile. This being a musical however, Price must reprise his ardor for Or-lan-do several more times, to diminishing returns.
When one of the African villagers declares that he’s got maggots in his scrotum, it’s not really funny (to me) because just the mention of the word scrotum doesn’t send me into tickles. When Price tells the ailing man he must go to a doctor, and the man says that he is the doctor, well OK, there’s a chuckle. But then the man continues to remind the audience throughout the show that he has maggots in his scrotum. And people continued to laugh. At the mention of the word scrotum, I guess. The way that some people laugh at burps and farts, or “dirty words,” or watching fat people fall down. It’s like clockwork for some, or the pushing of a button.
Another of the musical’s running jokes is that Nabulungi (Kim Exum), the village chief’s daughter, mistakes a typewriter for a cellphone and uses it to text her neighbors. Umm, OK. That flat note, and a lot of the show in fact, might work better as a cartoon skit (on South Park’s far superior competitor Family Guy, for example), but not so much when presented live on stage. Same goes for the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which is basically a musical fantasia lifted from shows like South Park, Family Guy and The Simpsons. I find over-the-top pastiches like this can be delightful in cartoon form when you can add dancing elephants and fireworks and the like, but seeing people costumed as goofy devils and coffee cups lessons the magic (and the laughs) for me the same way seeing caped superheroes jacked from the pages of comic books does. I’m a decades-long fan of Marvel and DC superhero comics, but when I see the characters in films, on television (god forbid on the stage) or mulling around on Hollywood Boulevard, it’s always a downer.
The Book of Mormon
closes November 19, 2017
Details and tickets
OK, so it’s not very funny and it’s kind of stupid, but what else? How did it earn its two-star rating? It’s got energy, thanks to co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, the cast is very good, especially the leads and the group of young Mormons holding it down in Uganda’s District 9, and there are even a couple of catchy songs credited to Mssrs. Parker and Stone and Robert Lopez, the composer of Avenue Q.
It all starts off very promising, with an appropriately cartoony set designed by Scott Pask, resembling The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ revered Salt Lake Temple. The opening number “Hello” is terrific, a lively ensemble piece that sets the tone, introduces the young heroes Elders Price and Cunningham (Conner Peirson) and gets the story moving. In “Two by Two,” Price, the shining image of the super-missionary, is paired up with his opposite—Cunningham, a socially awkward slob ignorant of his church’s precepts and prone to spinning outrageous lies. The twosome are sent to Uganda to proselytize among the natives, where they quickly learn that Africa is sadly not like The Lion King.
After “Hello,” the show’s other outstanding number is led by Elder McKinley (wonderfully, exuberantly played by PJ Adzima) as he lets Price and Cunningham in on a scarily effective method of dealing with upsetting feelings. In the hilarious “Turn It Off,” McKinley advises the new boys that “When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head, don’t feel those feelings. Hold them in instead. Turn it off, like a light switch. Just go click. It’s a cool little Mormon trick.” When Price lets McKinley know that it’s OK to have gay thoughts as long as he doesn’t act upon them, he is upbraided because “then you’re just keepin’ it down. Like a dimmer switch on low. … Being gay is bad, but lying is worse. So just realize you have a curable curse, and turn it off, like a light switch!”
Soon after this high point, the score mostly becomes repetitive and dull, blending into a forgettable mash, lacking any distinction.
The cast gives it their all however, and Clay and Peirson are fine as the fish-out-of-water, mismatched-buddy archetypes. Exum also stands out for her earnest portrayal and lovely singing voice, especially during “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” There are some additional chuckle moments, such as when Nabulungi is readying to be baptized (“baptized good!”) by Cunningham; the vignettes humorously (and accurately) outlining the history of the Latter-day Saints; and in tongue-in-cheek critiques of the Disneyfication of Africa “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and misplaced first-world do-gooderism “I Am Africa.”
But overall the characters, the book and the lyrics are pretty thin. A typical Parker-Stone attempt at funny mixes in references people recognize on a superficial level with dumb, often context-free profanity to create wafer-thin comedy. A spoof on cultural chauvinism for example, includes references to Bono, Kilimanjaro, Nelson Mandela, and the lost boys of Sudan without much connective tissue or depth, however. You’re just meant to grin and bear it…and find poop funny.
Call The Book of Mormon a valentine sendup of classic mid-20th century American musicals. I can accept that—regretfully acknowledging what passes as popular entertainment these days—but sure. Call it daring, or brilliant (“the best musical of this century!”) and I’m spurred to wonder out here in outlierland…all I see is a blunt episode of Glee.
The Book of Mormon. Book, Music and Lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker. Featuring Kevin Clay, Conner Peirson, PJ Adzima, Kim Exum, Sterling Jarvis, Ron Bohmer and Oge Agulue. Scenic design: Scott Pask. Costume design: Ann Roth. Lighting design: Brian MacDevitt. Sound design: Brian Ronan. Hair design: Josh Marquette. Choreography: Casey Nicholaw. Music supervision and vocal arrangements: Stephen Oremus. Music director: Alan Bukowiecki. Orchestrations: Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus. Production stage manager: Joyce Davidson. Produced by Anne Garefino, Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Scott Delman, Jean Doumanian, Roy Furman, Important Musicals, Stephanie McClelland, Kevin Morris, Jon B. Platt and Sonia Friedman Productions. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.