THE BOOK OF MORMON
Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone; directed by Casey Nicholaw and Mr. Parker; choreography by Mr. Nicholaw; music direction and vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus; sets by Scott Pask; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Brian Ronan; hair design by Josh Marquette; production stage manager, Karen Moore; orchestrations by Larry Hochman and Mr. Oremus; dance music arrangements by Glen Kelly; music coordinator, Michael Keller; production manager, Aurora Productions; general manager, STP/David Turner. Presented by Anne Garefino, Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Jean Doumanian, Roy Furman, Important Musicals LLC, Stephanie P. McClelland, Kevin Morris, Jon B. Platt, Sonia Friedman Productions; executive producer, Stuart Thompson. At the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200; telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
WITH: Josh Gad (Elder Cunningham), Andrew Rannells (Elder Price), Nikki M. James (Nabulungi), Rory O’Malley (Moroni), Brian Tyree Henry (General) and Michael Potts (Mafala Hatimbi).
Missionary Men With Confidence in Sunshine
By BEN BRANTLEY
This is to all the doubters and deniers out there, the ones who say that heaven on Broadway does not exist, that it’s only some myth our ancestors dreamed up. I am here to report that a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical has arrived at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the kind our grandparents told us left them walking on air if not on water. So hie thee hence, nonbelievers (and believers too), to “The Book of Mormon,” and feast upon its sweetness.
Now you should probably know that this collaboration between the creators of television’s “South Park” (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and the composer of “Avenue Q” (Robert Lopez) is also blasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak. But trust me when I tell you that its heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show.
That’s right, the same Rodgers and Hammerstein who wrote the beloved “Sound of Music” and “King and I,” two works specifically (and deliciously) referenced here. Like those wholesome, tuneful shows, “The Book of Mormon” is about naïve but plucky educators set down in an unfamiliar world, who find their feet, affirm their values and learn as much as they teach.
Of course different times call for different contexts. So instead of sending a widowed British governess to a royal court in 19th-century Siam or a nun in training to an Austrian chateau, “The Book of Mormon” transports two dewy missionaries from Salt Lake City to 21st-century Uganda.
And rather than dealing with tyrannical, charismatic men with way too many children, our heroes (enjoyably embodied by Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells) must confront a one-eyed, genocidal warlord with an unprintable name. And a defeated, defensive group of villagers, riddled with AIDS, who have a few choice words for the God who let them wind up this way. And local folks like the guy who keeps announcing that he has maggots in his scrotum. That’s enough to test the faith of even the most optimistic gospel spreaders (not to mention songwriters).
Yet in setting these dark elements to sunny melodies, “The Book of Mormon” achieves something like a miracle. It both makes fun of and ardently embraces the all-American art form of the inspirational book musical. No Broadway show has so successfully had it both ways since Mel Brooks adapted his film “The Producers” for the stage a decade ago. Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Mr. Parker, with choreography by Mr. Nicholaw, “The Book of Mormon” has its tasty cake (from an old family recipe) and eats it with sardonic relish.
If you know “South Park,” the 14-year-old animated sitcom about four naturally impious young lads, then you will know that Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone take a schoolboy’s delight in throwing spitballs at things sacred, including most major religions. But you also may have gathered that these men take equal pleasure in the transcendent, cathartic goofiness of song-and-dance numbers. (As students they collaborated on the low-budget film “Cannibal! The Musical,” and their 1999 feature-length film, “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” is one of the best movie musicals of recent years.)
As the composer of “Avenue Q” — which took public-television-style teaching songs out of the kindergarten and put them into post-collegiate urban life — Mr. Lopez helped bring to Broadway young adults who had grown up on “Sesame Street.” And Mr. Nicholaw has demonstrated an affinity for savvy, high-energy musical pastiche with his work on shows like “Spamalot” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
Now, as a team, Messrs. Stone, Parker, Lopez and Nicholaw have created the ideal production for both the post-“Avenue Q” kids — the ones who wallow in the show tunes of “Glee” without shame and appear on YouTube lip-syncing to cast albums — and their older, less hip relatives. “The Book of Mormon” is utterly fluent in the language of musical entertainment from vaudeville to anthem-laden poperettas like “Les Misérables” and beyond. And it uses this vocabulary with a mixture of reverence and ridicule in which, I would say, reverence has the upper hand.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the issue of sacrilege. This show makes specific use of the teachings of the Mormon Church and especially of the ecclesiastical history from which the play takes its title. Church founders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young appear in illustrative sequences, as does Jesus and an angel named Moroni. When delivered in musical-comedy style, these vignettes float into the high altitudes of absurdity.
But a major point of “The Book of Mormon” is that when looked at from a certain angle, all the forms of mythology and ritual that allow us to walk through the shadows of daily life and death are, on some level, absurd; that’s what makes them so valiant and glorious. And by the way, that includes the religion of the musical, which lends ecstatic shape and symmetry to a world that often feels overwhelmingly formless.
All the folks involved in “Mormon” prove themselves worthy, dues-paying members of the church of Broadway. Whether evoking Salt Lake City-style spic-and-span-ness or squalid poverty in a drought-plagued village, Scott Pask’s sets and Ann Roth’s costumes have exactly the right heightened brightness, which stops short of the cartoonish. And as sung and danced, the production numbers have the pep and shimmer of yesteryear’s showstoppers.
Set to eminently hummable melodies, Mr. Nicholaw’s superb choreography (his best to date) manages to evoke the tap orgies of Busby Berkeley, the zoological pageantry of “The Lion King,” the calisthenic boogieing of latter-day Broadway and even Martha Graham-style Americana. These numbers are witty, ridiculous, impeccably executed, genuinely stirring and — contrary to expectation — free of snark or satirical malice.
Nearly all of them are surprising, and I don’t want to give away much. But allow me to single out my personal favorites. “Turn It Off” is a hilarious chorus-line piece about repression, performed by the (all-male Mormon) missionaries and destined to make a star of its lead singer and dancer, Rory O’Malley (whose character is repressed in his own special way). And then — oh, bliss — there’s “Joseph Smith American Moses,” a spirited, innocently obscenity-laden reworking of Jerome Robbins’s “Small House of Uncle Thomas” sequence from “The King and I.”
The book is not quite on the level of the production numbers. (Isn’t that always the way with musicals?) The fractious bromance between Elder Price (Mr. Rannells), a human Ken doll, and Elder Cunningham (Mr. Gad), a portly, hysteria-prone slob, will seem standard issue to anyone who has attended buddy comedy flicks since, oh, the 1980s. Mr. Gad’s character, in the mold of Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, is a variation on a screen type you can’t get away from these days.
But Mr. Gad remains likable and funny (especially doing Bono in a number called “I Am Africa”), while Mr. Rannells makes brilliant use of his character’s narcissism, which isn’t so far from the impulse that animates musical stage stars. As Nabulungi, the smart, dewy village girl who dreams of Salt Lake City, the sweet but savvy Nikki M. James gives a lovely, funny performance, never winking at her character’s earnestness. And for combining polish, enthusiasm and individuality, the ensemble is the best in a musical since Susan Stroman’s team for “The Producers.”
In a number that perfectly captures the essence of this happily paradoxical show, Mr. Rannells’s character beards the den of the evil warlord (Brian Tyree Henry) and, much like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” sings radiantly of his faith and hope and determination. The warlord isn’t buying any of it, and the priceless contrast between attitudes here is the difference between the world of musicals and the world of real life.
“The Book of Mormon” thoroughly understands this difference. This makes all the sweeter its celebration of the privilege, for just a couple of hours, of living inside that improbable paradise called a musical comedy.