With Jesus on Their Side

Andrew Rannells as Elder Price.Photo: Joan Marcus; Illustration by Crystal Shrimp

Do you believe in theater, friend? Or has your faith been strained to the breaking point? If so, I say unto thee, go forth to the tabernacle otherwise known as the Eugene O’Neill and receive, full in the face, a new testament from the rude prophets of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The Book of Mormon, arriving after months of hype, somehow delivers even more than its ridiculously felicitous advance buzz promised: It’s an often uproarious, spiritually up-tempo satire not just of Mormonism, and not just religion in general, but of (no kidding) Occidental civilization itself, in all its well-intentioned, self-mythologizing, autoerotically entitled glory. Mormon chipperly shitcans all pieties — except the sacred, mystic conventions of musical theater. And therein lies the real miracle: With muscular assists from clued-in co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw and Avenue Q co-composer Robert Lopez, Parker and Stone—the sincerest, most serious-minded of social comedian—”have effectively closed an irony wormhole that opened with Urinetown, grandpappy of all millennial metamusicals. After Mormon, I like to imagine, the Broadway musical might be free to be a Broadway musical again—even if it is balls-out funny and relevant to audiences under 85.

The story begins in Salt Lake City, as young Elder Price (a great, dangerously apple-cheeked Andrew Rannells) graduates from Missionary Training Center in a sensational opening number (“Hello”) that recalls the ingenious musical gamesmanship of Meredith Willson and Frank Loesser. To his dismay, Price is deployed to Uganda—not his beloved and prayed-for Orlando—and paired with the class imbecile, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), an ingratiating dork with a penchant for conflating Mormon theology and sci-fi fantasy. (Spoiler alert: Turns out they’re surprisingly compatible.) They arrive in mythically horrific Africa, an AIDS-infested hellhole terrorized by a warlord with a nom de guerre I won’t repeat here for fear of spoiling a joke I’m still laughing at. The villagers are in no mood for God—hence their anthem “Hasa Diga Eebowai” which translates to a catchy blasphemy and bounces to a subversively springy, Lion King–y, Afrogeneric beat. “Having a saying makes it all better!” explains a villager, sticking a middle finger right up Disney’s “Hakuna Matata.”

Elder Price descends into full spiritual crisis, experiencing a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” that blows open the sleeker, fleeter second act with enough comedic force to prolapse the average diaphragm. (Act one, funny as it is, is mostly scene-setting and throat-clearing.) Meanwhile, Elder Cunningham connects with a fellow escapist, the naïve Nabulungi (Nikki M. James), and finally discovers a use for his yarn-spinning skills. In the tradition of all great religions and their close kin, crossover fan-fiction, Cunningham wins converts by customizing American Mormonism into something better suited to Ugandan realities: His reconceived LDS gospel involves dysentery, clitoral mutilation, Mordor, and the Starship Enterprise.

Parker and Stone’s belief in the unifying power of all-American bullshit will come as no surprise to lovers of Team America: World ­Police. And their proficiency with the ­musical-theater form won’t shock anyone who saw South Park: Bigger, Longer & ­Uncut (still their best work). What’s so uniquely winning about The Book of Mormon is its scruffy humanism, its eagerness to redeem its characters—even its smaller ones. The supporting cast is astonishingly good; Rory O’Malley, as openly closeted Elder McKinley, comes close to stealing the show more than once. (Charming as the leads are, their chemistry needs to deepen; Gad is funniest when not pushing Farley-hard on his jokes and high notes.)

And let’s be clear: None of these kids is much deeper than a South Park cutout. Nor need they be. For Parker and Stone, all concepts, characters, and even beliefs can be comfortably reduced to two dimensions, and that’s more than enough to get the job done. Is the show a reductionist attack on Mormon­ism? Or on every religion? It’s the wrong question, really. When Lieutenant Uhura, Frodo, Yoda, Jesus, Satan, Joseph Smith, Darth Vader, and the Angel Moroni all converge to sanctify a show, that’s what I call a quorum.

See Also
Parker and Stone on Bringing Book to Stage

The Book of Mormon
By Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone.
Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

With Jesus on Their Side