Review: Book of Mormon at Eugene O’Neill Theatre

Review: Book of Mormon at Eugene O’Neill Theatre

Hello … My name is Elder Runyon … and I would like to share with you the most amazing musical.

All behold The Book of Mormon. The creators of Comedy Central’s lude and crude South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have taken Broadway by storm with their tongue and cheek comedic take on the Mormon religion. From the opening song “Hello!,” this musical slaps you relentlessly with waves of humor at the expense of this highly curious religion — did you know Jesus came to America much like Eddie Murphy?

The Book of Mormon features Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (normally played by Josh Gad, this performance by Jared Gertner) as a group of young men who have just finished Missionary training in scenic Salt Lake City and are amped up to take on the big bad world of non-believers, spreading the gospel of Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon religion). While Price’s classmates get pinned to exotic locales across the globe like Japan, France and Norway, he gets paired with runt of the litter Elder Cunningham and the unlikely duo are sent to the wilds of Uganda. Quite a stretch from the magical Orlando that danced in Price’s dreams.

Elder Price packs up his sizable disappointment and prepares to head off into the land of Lion King. What he and his bumbling sidekick find when they touch down on African soil is a people beset with AIDS, terrorized by ruthless warlords who have as much use for religion and the Book of Mormon as cuff links. The existing Mormon missionaries dumped in Uganda have baptized no tribal people since they setup camp so Elder Price sees this as the massive challenge set before him to prove that he is in fact the choosen one he’s dubbed himself to be. Unfortunately, things don’t come easy until screw up Elder Cunningham finds a new way to pitch Mormanism to the people that isn’t quite kosher.

These wayward Mormon missionaries and this Ugandan tribe seem strange bedfellows off first glance, but this violent cultural clash really make the character’s personalities pop from the stage. While Book of Mormon is by every definition a comedy, it also looks at the Mormon tenants and how they deal with sticky issues like homosexuality, religion’s factual inconsistencies and the limits of faith. The casting is one of the production’s strongest assets. Andrew Rannells is a star who has landed. He only has Hairspray and a touring stint on Jersey Boys on his Broadway resume, but after The Book of Mormon he can write his own ticket for the stage, film, television — you name it. I’m disappointed to have not seen Josh Gad take on Elder Cunningham but understudy Jared Gertner was not only solid filling in but sold the character to the point where you couldn’t tell he wasn’t supposed to be in his skin all along. Nikki M. James, playing Nabulungi, really got Mormon Americans into bed with the Ugandan tribe so to speak. The supporting cast was fabulous.

I can easily say The Book of Mormon is the funniest comedy I’ve seen on Broadway in recent memory and the Tony Award voters agreed, nominating the musical for 14 awards where it bagged nine trophies including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. Parker, Stone and Lopez (Avenue Q) have written an impeccable book and lockstep lyrical accompaniment that is crude, savvy and side splittingly funny. There are many instant classics here like “Turn It Off,” “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and of course the perfect introduction “Hello!” On its release, the cast album was the highest charting Broadway album in four decades, notching the third spot on the Billboard charts.

If your sensitive ears shutter at the F-word, the C-word or any other crass word that fill a sailor’s dictionary, beware of the Book of Mormon. This is Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, so you didn’t really think they’d clean up their act just because they are now pulling back the curtains on the Great White Way did you? All the shocking off-color language is incorporated appropriately though it does sneak up at times to skewer you. Needless to say, this musical is not appropriate for children.

Walking out of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, I had the thought of Stone and Parker performing this musical for the first time to investors. I can imagine this collective look on their faces of “Sweet Jesus, what have the gotten ourselves into?” The Book of Mormon completely colors outside of the lines, openly questions organized religion as a whole (Mormonism is just a convenient piñata to savagely thrash their stick at) and spits in the face of all the rules of “proper” Broadway. Greatness doesn’t come from those who follow the rules or try to recycle success by following a carefully calculated recipe. Book of Mormon reaches that level of greatness through its singing dancing extravaganza that is off-the-vine fresh and refuses to pull any punches.

The Book of Mormon announced shortly after its Broadway opening that a touring company would launch in Denver December 2012. I think its safe to say Orlando will be on the tour calendar but will Salt Lake City? I’d really like to know the response of the typical Mormon who sees Book of Mormon. Disgust, revulsion, self-deprecating chuckles dare I say possibly even thanks? Its tough to say not having walked a mile in their shoes, but for all of its poking at the quirky religion it has done as much to bring Mormons into the public consciousness as Republican presidential-contender Mitt Romney. You can’t buy PR like this, and there is something to the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Maybe Stone and Parker can take on Scientology as their Broadway sequel. I can see the marquee beaming now with the names Tom Cruise and John Travolta taking the stage to share their extraterrestrial past through song and dance. That puppy sells itself.