‘The Book of Mormon,’ winner of nine Tony Awards, embodies the soul of American musical theater
What can one say about the show’s long-overdue arrival in Syracuse, except… Hallelujah!
The Book of Mormon is a hysterically irreverent and an ultimately sweet exultation of the human spirit. Sweet? Exultation of the human spirit?
Could these accolades really be about something from Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the potty-mouthed cartoon South Park? You know those guys — the bane of the parents of Middle America who famously went stoned and dressed like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez to the Academy Awards and whose work has been condemned by the Catholic Church, the Church of Scientology and any number of family-values organization. As is evident by the title, The Book of Mormon lampoons The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), a frequent target of the animated TV show.
For all the South Park creators’ reputation for being totally “out there,” The Book of Mormon is decidedly traditional in structure and theme. It’s a masterfully paced Broadway play with all the requisite bells and whistles: Showstopper numbers in each act, precision choreography, inventive sets, stunning backgrounds and superb performances. It has poignant, heart-rending moments that make audiences audibly sigh “Awwwh” and an adorable “Boy Meets Girl” subplot with the lovely Denée Benton as Nabulungi.
Parker and Stone teamed up with Robert Lopez, who is an entertainment force in his own right. He created the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q and most recently won the Academy Award for the songs in the Disney juggernaut Frozen. Lopez has also won an Emmy and a Grammy, making him one of only 12 people who have won all four awards. The Parker-Stone-Lopez combination worked Broadway magic: The Book of Mormon won nine Tony Awards in 2011 and has been playing to packed houses in New York and in national tours ever since.
Part of the reason may be that the take-home message of the play is as tried and true as any mainstream movie or uplifting young adult novel. Reach for your dreams! Stand by your friends! Keep trying and you will succeed! Climb every mountain!
It is, in essence, a coming of age and road trip story. Two young men jump into a beat-up car not to travel cross-country, but to fulfill their church-mandated mission. Other missionaries in their cohort get sent to places like France — “land of pastries and turtlenecks.” But our protagonists, Elder Kevin Price (Ryan Bondy) and Elder Arnold Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), get to go to an unpalatable region of war-torn Uganda. There, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham discover an Africa that’s nothing at all like The Lion King (which is amusing satirized in the play, including a fabulous number that’s a send-up of Hakuna Matata).
Hasa Diga Eebowai does not mean “No worries for the rest of your days,” but something that might make some of the more devote gasp out loud.
Elder Price is insufferably perfect and Elder Cunningham is a bumbling screw-up who has trouble adhering to the letter of the LDS teaching. Alas, they discover that their fellow missionaries have made no headway in their appointed task to “get out there and baptize those Africans.” The young Mormons are dressed in sharply creased black pants and dress shirts so white and clean they almost sparkle. And, boy, can they ever tap dance. They haven’t let their lackluster record on conversions get them down as they tell the newcomers in Turn It Off — a paean to repression (my favorite number in the show).
In the troubled village to which they have been assigned, the young Mormons face a crudely-named war lord (David Aron Damane) who wants to do unmentionable and repellant things to people, all of whom seem to be suffering from AIDS. Be prepared. In The Book of Mormon they do mention the unmentionable. In fact, they sing it, dance it and also show it in Act Two — in what may be the most cringe-inducing image of the evening.
A recurring motif in Mormon is the use of vignettes that depict the founding and development of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. These are as endearingly cheesy as any amateur Sunday school performance — including a Jesus who speaks in a syrupy Southern accent and whose robe lights up with strings of Christmas lights. The hilariously narrated interludes present the LDS’s stated history: The Ancient Jews sailed in boats to America.
The tribes of the New World Israelites fought battles. The Garden of Eden was in Missouri. If you know nothing about the LDS prior to the national tour’s arrival in Syracuse, you will get the bare-bones, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek version. Incidentally, the news coverage of the Broadway production when the play first opened reported that Mormons in the audience found the references to the interminable (and often deadly dull) passages on the Nephites and Lamanites quite droll.
It’s quite appropriate that the musical is once again touring Upstate New York. (It played a sold-out run in Rochester last year.) Palmyra is just 70 miles west of here and it’s there that Joseph Smith, at the age of 18, got the calling to walk a few miles out of town, climb a hill and dig up a set of “golden plates” from which he later translated the text of “The Book of Mormon.” The Golden Plates make an appearance later on in the play in a musical number that is nothing short of brilliant.
You may remember Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the charming play-within-a-play in The King and I, which is performed by the “natives” for the visiting British missionary leaders. The Book of Mormon also has a play-within-a-play when the LDS church leaders go to Kevin and Arnold’s village on an inspection tour. Remember the part in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when Little Eva crosses the frozen river while fleeing the evil Simon Legree? Long waving lengths of fabric wielded by cast members evoke the river. Likewise, lengths of fabric are used by the African villagers — but the similarity with Rodgers and Hammerstein ends there.
You won’t believe the things you are seeing and hearing in this number, and elsewhere. One example: Baptize Me, a song about religious conversion, is replete with broad sexual innuendo in body language and sight gags. Do people walk out in outrage? No. It’s all in good fun and inventively, riotously funny.
Outside the Landmark Theater here in Syracuse, some LDS “elders” — young men as handsome and fresh-faced as the actors on the stage — were asking theater-goers if they wanted a complimentary copy of the real Book of Mormon. (I didn’t see any takers.) Further down the block, a protestor with a large sign denouncing Mormonism yelled diatribes with some vehemence. Interestingly, the LDS church itself reacted to the production with a much more sanguine way, with a concise official statement:
“The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
No one leaving the theater is likely to convert to Mormonism after seeing Parker and Stone’s depiction of the church and its missionary work. At the same time, theatergoers do not feel compelled to criticize the church — even after hearing the most improbable LDS beliefs. And that’s the genius of The Book of Mormon. The musical simultaneously skewers, and joyfully reaffirms, people’s belief in religion.
The show doesn’t treat religion in a Richard Dawkins The God Delusion or a Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great kind of way, but does so delightedly — with smiles on the characters’ faces and great songs on their lips. The arc of the play shows how religious fervor can originate and how people can convince themselves to believe in the most nonsensical things.
Not profane at all, The Book of Mormon embodies the soul of the American musical theater.
What: The Book of Mormon, book, music & lyrics by Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker
Who: Famous Artists Broadway
Where: The Landmark Theatre, 362 S. Salina St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed: Oct. 22, 2014
When: Through Oct. 26
Length: About two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets: $45 to $128. Call (315) 424-8210 or famousartistsbroadway.com
Family guide: Explicit language and crude sexual references