BOSTON – This is it? This is the outrageous, transgressive, hilarious “The Book of Mormon”?
I mean, it’s cute the way they poke fun at those clean-cut, nerdy-looking missionaries with the – let’s face it – bizarre back story and the choreography is energetic and infectious, but a great piece of musical theater or a clever satire of modern mores “The Book of Mormon” is not.
Critics are as susceptible to the expectations game as much as everyone else and I suppose that I might have been more impressed had I seen it when the musical first came out. But as the myth of the show has grown, the hopes were that this was the next “Producers” or even “Avenue Q.”
First of all, let’s give “The Book of Mormon” its due. Well, first of all let’s stipulate that the Boston run at the Opera House (through April 28) is sold out except for a daily lottery of tickets. What you’re missing if you don’t have tickets is the comedy of modern missionaries in Uganda trying to bring their version of Jesus to the Africans. (The “star” missionary declares that they’re not Christians, they’re Mormons, which the Church of Latter Day Saints would strenuously deny.)
Here's the opening number from last year's Tony Awards with the New York cast:
You can almost fill in the rest of the story from there, particularly if you know the “South Park” work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone who together with Robert Lopez wrote the book, music and lyrics. The Mormons are all smiley faces and into a grotesque form of self-denial. The Africans are AIDS-riddled, cynical about God in any form, and have to worry about a genital-mutilating warlord who’s coming to town.
At the center of the story are Elders Price and Cunningham (neither of whom is at all elder). Price is the Donny Osmond square-jawed type who is a true believer and Cunningham the portly outcast who would rather be watching “Star Wars” than reading the real “Book of Mormon.” Mark Evans and Christopher John O’Neill are excellent as the duo, as is Samantha Marie Ware as the unlikely African love interest, Nabulungi, whose name gives rise to increasingly insipid jokes. As do all the fat-guy-as-rock-star sight gags, despite O’Neill’s talent.
But we’re in the giving-credit phase of the review so let’s forget that. The opening dance numbers of stormin’ Mormons off to change the world and, particularly, the Africans singing a “Lion King”-like happy tune are tremendous, though you can see the punchline in the latter one coming. The song is actually reflecting their contempt for a God who can stand by and watch the spread of AIDS, poverty and violence in Africa.
The creators don’t really have the courage of their lack of convictions, though, because the stage is not set for any kind of development of those themes but for a musical arc much more conventional than “The King and I.” Granted, the language would make Rogers and Hammerstein turn over in their G-rated graves, but that’s hardly anything new. As friends said at intermission, you might not want your kids singing these songs around the house, but for most theater-going adults, there’s nothing particularly offensive, or shocking, about the lyrics. (True believers of any stripe might want to stay away, though the Mormons are, to their credit, not outraged by the show. They have three full-page ads in the program.)
If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m not the biggest fan of “South Park.” I appreciate Parker and Stone's take-no-prisoners attitude toward both the left and the right and I appreciate that world view in “The Book of Mormon” as well. On the other hand the degree of difficulty in their work seems like about a four on a scale of one to ten, compared to the seven or eight on “The Simpsons.” The same is more or less true of “The Book of Mormon” compared to the previously-mentioned “Avenue Q” or “The Producers.” The lyrics are not nearly as good and the music is pretty much borrowed from other shows, sometimes as a satire of “The Lion King” or maybe even “Les Miz.”
I’m glad enough I saw the show, though if I had spent a couple of hundred bucks on the tickets, maybe not. But people have always had a soft spot for safe programming disguised as something naughty. “The Book of Mormon” doesn’t get much beyond cute and naughty – and safe.
This program aired on April 11, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.