Here’s what bothers me about The Book Of Mormon. The audience is just too ready to laugh. No matter what’s going to be presented on stage, people have been given permission to enjoy making fun of someone else’s faith, and oh boy, they are taking the opportunity.
This is a good show. It’s just not anywhere near as good as the hype, which was stupendous. The book, music and lyrics are by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, which I’ve never seen; and Robert Lopez, of the Tony Award winning Avenue Q, which I couldn’t stand. So, my expectations were obviously not as high as most of the rest of the house. Buzz buzz buzz, can’t wait, it’s gonna be fabulous.
I guess a lot of the perceived humor involves how often it’s funny to hear someone declare “I have maggots in my scrotum.” For me, once was more than enough. I wonder how much loud guffawing there’d be if the jokes were directed at gays, instead of those who are portrayed as being anti-gay. Yes, of course, the homosexual who’s been forced deep into the closet by his religion will eventually be accepted for who he truly is. This is, after all, the New York stage. For a theater team that choses to describe itself as “reckless,” come on guys. Really?
As for the promised obscene language, just watch any show starring Chef Gordon Ramsey, and fill in the bleeps. The clean cut missionary tries to convert a warlord and gets a bible up his rear end. Wow, radical, right; absolutely hilarious.
What does work is the cast, all of whom are terrific performers. Josh Gad, who plays sloppy nerdy Elder Cunningham, definitely has a bright future in films ahead of him; his comic timing is a joy to behold. Andrew Rannells brings square self-satisfied Elder Price to life and humanity, in a role that could easily have become nothing but a mocking cliché. Nikki M. James is heartbreakingly lovely as Nabulungi, a young Ugandan women who desperately needs to believe.
There are also some truly funny bits. Out of Cunningham’s fevered imagination appear Lt. Uhura, hobbits, Darth Vader, and Yoda. A nightmare of hell includes Jeffrey Dahmer, Hitler, Johnny Cochrane, and coffee. Salt Lake City as The Promised Land? Now, that’s funny.
And who wouldn’t understand a young man who wants to do his missionary service in Orlando, instead of poverty and disease stricken Africa? I also appreciated the number the Africans sing when things go wrong; not exactly “My Favorite Things,” but a healthy expression of the futility of their lives. And I must add that I find those who feel the way to cope with problems is to flip a mental switch and “Turn It Off” are far more wrongheaded than anything in this play.
Who knows, maybe I’ll look back on this one day as I do Enron, The Musical. Gee, it really did have some memorable scenes, and I wish I hadn’t been so rough on it. But probably not.
One real sticking point: every time I heard a character refer to “Heavenly Father,” all I could think of was Big Love, which also took on The Latter Day Saints, but tackled the subject matter in a far more entertaining way.
Faith is always a complex issue if you really think about it. Were there divine tablets of gold found by Joseph Smith? Does anybody really buy into Transubstantiation, or understand fully the concept of the Trinity? And it’s forbidden to eat pork because…?
What is undeniable is that the Mormons were persecuted in this country for their religion, and it’s still debatable whether or not a Mormon could be elected to the highest office in this land. And, when the shell game that is PR for a Broadway show promises shock and awe like you’ve never seen before, keep your hand on your wallet.
Photos by Joan Marcus
The Book Of Mormon
Eugene O’Neill Theatre
230 West 49th Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics. www.michalljeffers.com