This musical is not for those who are squeamish about bodily excretory functions, uncomfortable with cavalier portrayals of Christ or are bothered by language that would make Mamet blush. But it is the musical with the biggest heart on Broadway. Messrs. Stone, Parker and Lopez have brought forth a tuneful, intelligent, outrages and old-fashioned style musical that seems like it could have been ripped right from the minds of some of America’s masters of the art-form.
Elders Price and Cunningham are two young Mormon missionaries paired together for their first missionary assignment. Elder Cunningham is a slovenly goofball who has a habit of laughing like a hyena at inappropriate times. Elder Price is the model Mormon missionary, perfect hair, perfectly behaved, and that perfect smile. You know that sparkling tooth special-effect you've seen in the Orbit gum commercials? Elder Cunningham stands on stage holding a copy of the book of Mormon eagerly telling us "this book will change your life" and I could swear I saw, gleaming off his perfect teeth, that very same sparkle effect. The very pretty Andrew Rannels plays Price to squeaky clean perfection. Josh Gad is over-the-top as Cunningham. Hilarious, but over-the-top. As he chews the scenery you have no choice but to laugh and to love him.
Elder Price dreams of being sent on his first mission to that most perfect of perfect places, Orlando, where everyone is happy. But to his horror they are assigned to a mission in Uganda. Upon arrival in Uganda, they are greeted by the local tribe with a cheery little song “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Pretty soon the two boys are pulled into the song and they too are singing “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Elder Price asks what the song means and is mortified when he learns it means “fuck you god.” This is their mantra, how they get through life. Pretty soon the entire group is in full force singing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” while gesticulating wildly with their middle finger raised heavenward.
Upon arrival at the local mission the boys are greeted by the dis-spirited Mormon missionaries already there. They haven’t had very much luck in getting any of the villagers to join their church. The village is being oppressed by a local war-lord who goes by the charming name of General Butt-Fucking Naked. He insists on the genital mutilation of all the females since he claims the clitoris is an evil thing. He even shoots one of the villagers right in front of Elder Price causing blood to splatter all over him.
After returning shell-shocked to the mission, Price announces he is leaving. He asks how could they possibly deal with all this violence. Song cue. “Turn it Off,” is an homage to religion’s favorite tool, repression. Who better to lead the song than the repressed gay Elder McKinley, wonderfully played by Rory O’Malley.
The authors have made an attempt at a relationship between Cunningham and the daughter of one of the local villagers, Nabulungi, played by beautifully by Nikki M. James, but this is handled as more of a pre-pubescent crush and never seems to evolve into much more than a comic foil for Cunningham. He can never seem to remember her name and is constantly referring to her as Noxima, Neosporine, Neutragena, Nordstroms, etc. in a gag that runs the length of the show.
The vacuum left in the wake of Price’s departure forces Cunningham to take on a leadership role. He suddenly finds himself in a position to have to explain to one of the villager’s WHY he can’t go have sex with a baby to get rid of his AIDS (he believes that if you have sex with a virgin it will get rid of HIV). Cunningham finds himself on a slippery slope as he is forced to make up teachings from the Book of Mormon. In doing so, he mixes in elements from “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” and “Lord of the Rings.” You see, he’s never read The Book of Mormon because “it’s so boring.” This later comes back to haunt him as the local villagers decide to surprise visiting church Elders with a musical presentation of their version of the history of the Mormon Church with “Joseph Smith American Moses.” This most hilarious musical number was no-doubt inspired by the narrated dance “Small House of Uncle Thomas” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. This number, along with “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” are two of the show’s best. The latter is a vision of hell with such residents as Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cocron (complete with OJ glove).
Casey Nicholaw (Elf, Drowsy Chaperone) shares a co-direction credit with Parker and also is responsible for the vibrant choreography. The two men keep this musical moving at a perfect clip. Scott Pask’s set perfectly accommodates the tone of the show using drops and a simple village set that creates a depth to the stage that isn’t really there. Ann Roth’s colorful costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting work beautifully together to complete the picture.
Religion is there to explain the unexplained. No matter what message one chooses to take from it, what that message is isn’t as important as the ultimate effect it has on whomever is hearing it. That is the message behind The Book of Mormon.