"The Book of Mormon," from Trey Parker and Matt Stone with music by Robert Lopez, may be the best "South Park" episode yet.
OK, so it’s not actually part of the "South Park" series, but you couldn't blame theatergoers for mistaking it as such. Substitute Cartman and the gang for a district of naively eager Mormon missionaries (with cleaner mouths than the "South Park" kids, of course), add some of the catchiest music to come from Broadway in years, crank the raunch level up to 11, and you’ve got "The Book of Mormon."
If you aren’t familiar with Parker and Stone's adult-themed animated series about foul-mouthed elementary school kids and you are considering seeing "The Book of Mormon" during its Salt Lake City run, you might want to dip your toe in those waters first.
And to my faithful Mormon friends thinking of seeing "The Book of Mormon," know that it's not going to ruin your testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But it does poke major fun at what you believe. If you still decide to go, consider what LDS scholar Richard Lyman Bushman, author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," told CNN when the show came out on Broadway.
"Mormons experience the show like looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror," he said. "The reflection is hilarious but not really you. The nose is yours but swollen out of proportion."
The story of two mismatched Mormon missionaries sent to convert a warlord-ruled slum reeling from an AIDS epidemic in Uganda doesn’t sound like the ideal backdrop for a musical comedy. But that’s how Parker and Stone roll. Nothing is sacred unless it gets a laugh. And in "The Book of Mormon," the stage is their temple.
Parker and Stone have often hinted that they have something of an obsession with both Mormons and musicals. The somewhat doctrinally challenged but ultimately complimentary 2003 episode of "South Park" called “All About Mormons” is fully dedicated to the LDS faith. In a 2011 interview with Charlie Rose, Parker told Rose he'd “wanted to do a musical since I was a kid.” The pair took a crack at it in college with "Cannibal! The Musical" but finally got serious about bringing their two obsessions together with what they’ve called their “atheist love letter to religion."
There’s a lot to love about their musical "The Book of Mormon" — and a lot not to love.
The scenic design by Scott Pask sets an immediate tone. The first thing audiences see as they enter the Capitol Theatre is a detailed proscenium wrap that is a cross between the Assembly Hall on Temple Square and the San Diego Temple, topped by the golden Angel Moroni. These guys have done their homework. A backdrop of Salt Lake City with Crown Burger and Wal-Mart signs adds a delightful touch, and the Ugandan village looks straight out of cable news. The tour set, though clearly trimmed down for the road, was an effective way of making the point that reality is sometimes more absurd than fiction.
The first 30 minutes of the show are giddy and harmless. Any member of the LDS faith willing to laugh a little at him or herself would be entertained. Some might even wonder why something like this hasn’t come from their own ranks.
The curtain opens to the rousingly funny earworm “Hello” as missionaries introduce the show with their door approaches. I defy anyone seeing the musical to forget the catchy tune.
“Two by Two” takes place in the Missionary Training Center as the missionaries learn their languages and get their mission calls. The ensemble is talented, and the missionaries in particular do a great job of portraying the eagerness of young proselytizers mixed with a bit of honest personality. I caught myself thinking a few reminded me of some of my own mission companions. (Yes, I’m a practicing Mormon who proudly served in the Washington D.C. North Mission.)
The music, credited to the trio of Parker, Stone and Lopez and played flawlessly by pit conductor Justin Mendoza and the orchestra, is worthy of its 2011 Tony Award for Best Original Score. It’s memorable, witty and does a smart job of telling the story. In addition to “Hello” and “Two by Two," “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” sung by the leading companionship of Elder Kevin Price (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and Elder Arnold Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), but mostly Elder Price, is a hoot and starts the show off batting 3-for-3 with home run songs.
“Man Up,” “I Believe” and the sweetly naive “I Am Africa" are tinged with some ridiculous doctrinal fouls but are equally hummable and entertaining.
Once the missionaries reach Uganda, the story takes a turn for the obscene. The elders are welcomed to the country by villagers in their native tongue. When Elder Price asks good-naturedly about the translation of a prominent phrase, let’s just say he learns it’s not a prayer of thanksgiving.
The elders meet their fellow district members in “Turn It Off,” the bitingly funny tap ensemble number choreographed by Casey Nicholaw and a sensational homage to the great tap showstoppers of yesteryear, such as "Singin’ in the Rain" and "42nd Street."
A run-in with a warlord with an unprintable name sends Elder Price looking for a transfer to the beloved mission of his dreams — Orlando, Florida — and Elder Cunningham is left alone to teach the villagers. Cunningham has a problem, though. Well, two, actually. He’s never read the Book of Mormon, and he lies profusely whenever he’s nervous. But like all good Mormons, he perseveres against all odds, and in the thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly well-sung “Man Up,” he decides to take on the challenge.
This Elder Cunningham is honest and endearing. Holmes doesn’t try to copy Tony-nominated Josh Gad’s famous overweight sloth but instead makes Cunningham his own with great comedic timing, an awesome voice and a sincerity that gives this production of "The Book of Mormon" its heart.
Elder Cunningham tries preaching straight from the book. But when the villagers get bored, he ends up veering off into absurdity with stories that are more entertaining, if not unnaturally relevant, to a people looking for salvation from poverty, warlords and AIDS.
Against a backdrop of every Mormon boy’s favorite stories from the Book of Mormon, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, Elder Cunningham ends up convincing the villagers, and especially Nabalungi (played effortlessly by Alexandra Ncube), a dewy young girl yearning to walk the streets of "Sal Tlay Ka Siti” to be baptized, albeit into a pretty messed up version of Mormonism.
Elder Price sees the error of his ways, thanks to the just-OK “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” and returns in time to see what Elder Cunningham has done. Rather than chastise him with his usual righteous indignation, Elder Price has learned his lesson: It’s better to be good than right.
It's a lesson the actor might have imbued into Elder Price. Tighe is clearly a talented singer and dancer, and his notes and jazz hands were flawless. But instead of giving his plasticine, Osmond-like Elder Price something honest to melt the outer Ken doll, Tighe took the low road and played a cartoon stereotype to the end.
Word of the elders' exploits makes its way to the mission president, who comes to the village where the newly minted pseudo-Mormons put on a pageant, “Joseph Smith American Moses," relating Elder Cunningham’s outlandish version of the church’s founding.
And this is where "The Book of Mormon" musical falls off the rails.
Up to that moment, the few flaws in the production and the script could be overlooked — bad accents, poor sound engineering, the occasional flat joke and sloppy dancing (I’m looking at you, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”). But the pageant is beyond over-the-top vulgar and sacrilegious. It was so distracting and left such a bad taste in my mouth that I never did get fully back to a happy place in the final 20 minutes of the show, despite the cute closers “Tomorrow is a Latter Day” and a “Hello” reprise that has villagers now acting as missionaries evangelizing "The Book of Arnold.”
Too bad Parker and Stone couldn’t control themselves. Without the overdose of obscenity, "The Book of Mormon" would have been delightful.
Chris Higbee is the former general manager of DeseretNews.com and continues to write on various topics, including soccer, theater and social commentary. He is a graduate of BYU's music dance theater program. An award-winning singer and actor, he can be seen on screen (BibleVideos.org) and stage around Utah. He most recently played Jean Valjean in Orem Hale Center Theater's production of "Les Miserables."