Mar 24, 2011
Given the key contributors that “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone teamed with for their first Broadway outing, one might expect “The Book of Mormon” to show the influences of “Spamalot” and “Avenue Q.” As it happens, this raucously funny new show surpasses both of those Tony winners, and handily so: Every song enhances the hilarity, expert staging heightens every gag, and the cast of fresh faces is blissfully good. Broadway hasn’t seen anything like it since Mel Brooks came to town with “The Producers,” only “Mormon” has better songs.
Tuner’s success rests on a formidable foursome of talents. Parker and Stone have demonstrated their subversive brand of humor since 1997 on the animated “South Park” and the 1999 movie musical “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.” Robert Lopez (credited alongside the duo for music and lyrics), brings a dose of the musical-comedy knowhow he demonstrated as co-scribe on “Avenue Q,” while Casey Nicholaw (who co-directed the show with Parker and choreographed) has never met a musical accent that couldn’t be punched up by a broad gesture, as evidenced by his work as choreographer on “Spamalot” and choreographer-helmer of “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
The result is a show that never quits, particularly in its nonstop fusillade of obscenities; the authors lob more four-letter words than can be found in a Mamet three-act. Pattern is set early on with “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a chirpy, feel-good tune patterned on “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King.” It’s only midway through the third refrain that the natives cheerfully slip in the blasphemous translation, resulting in the first of several showstoppers.
The story is simplicity itself: Two young missionaries sent by the church to find converts in a Ugandan village ravaged by disease and a local warlord. After various trials and tribulations, they are inevitably victorious. Along the way, there’s a pageant relating a fractured version of the Scriptures, complete with mystical frogs, streaming dysentery and comical rubber-hose appendages; Christ makes several appearances in a decidedly non-flattering manner; and there’s a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” in the second act that includes Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnnie Cochran (with telltale glove).
The producing team, led by Anne Garefino (“South Park”) and Scott Rudin, have come up with a production as lustrous as the golden statue of the angel Moroni that rotates atop the proscenium. Show is boosted by canny contributions from set designer Scott Pask, costume designer Ann Roth and the music department of Stephen Oremus, Larry Hochman and Glen Kelly. Choreography is outstanding, especially when Nicholaw has his frenzied shirt-and-tie missionaries jerk around like ’60s go-go dancers.
Andrew Rannells, as the overachieving young Elder Price, is the brightest of a uniformly fine cast. Sporting a hypocritical smile as plastic as a Ken doll, Rannells dances as if possessed and positively shines, as though lit by his own personal halo. Josh Gad plays the other hero with a nervous cackle and the gentility of a young John Belushi, perhaps a little more broadly than necessary. The heart of the show is Nikki M. James as the Ugandan convert Nabulungi. Her performance of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” — dreaming of that utopian city in faraway Ooh-tah — brings touching sincerity to this outlandish fairy tale.
Michael Potts is a friendly presence who makes the most of “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” and Rory O’Malley adds a wry note as a tap-dancing Mormon who has learned to “turn off” his forbidden urges. Ensemble of Ugandan villagers and Mormon boys is impressive, the latter sporting what must be the whitest teeth in Broadway history.
For all its sacrilegious jabs, the show is earnestly about the power of faith, cresting with a rousing anthem (“I Believe”). The Ugandan natives believe, and ultimately embrace religion, while the heroes realize that doctrine is all metaphor — “a bunch of made-up stuff, but it points to something bigger.” And that describes “The Book of Mormon,” an original made-up-for-Broadway production that approaches musical-comedy Rapture.