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A Musical Miracle
Praise be to Elders Parker, Lopez and Stone! They possess the golden plates, and they’re proffering salvation for all — tired tourists and jaded New Yorkers alike. If you haven’t seen a musical comedy since the Golden Age of Rodgers and Hammerstein, fret not: the Elders hailing from South Park and Avenue Q are no Joseph Smiths, but they are all American prophets of the musical comedy form.
As the unlikely new spokesmen of the American musical, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone are here to guide you through 50-plus years of musical comedy, upping the joy of the form’s most delightful devices and reinvigorating its most tired of tropes. In the new Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, a pair of mismatched, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Mormons are sent on a mission to squalid and violent Uganda. Elder Price, the ambitious believer longing to baptize tourist and Tarzan alike in Orlando, is played by the adorable Andrew Rannells with utterly infectious, super-sunny optimism. The aimless schmuck he’s unluckily paired with is Elder Cunningham, hilariously played by Josh Gad with all the shlubby charm of Zak Galifianakis, in a fitting follow up to his original take on William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
From the moment Elders Price and Cunningham set foot on African soil, beginning with a predictably hilarious homage to The Lion King (“Hasa Diga Eebowai” is the new Hakuna Matata now unfit for young Simba’s ears), the creative team doesn’t simply nod to musical gems of yore, they flaunt, lampoon, and glorify them. Thanks largely to the cleverness of choreographer Casey Nicholaw and costumer Ann Roth, a musical lesson on the “third part” of the Bible offers us Joseph Smith and his fellow bonnet and plaid-clad pioneers dreamily dancing westward in a comic ode to Oklahoma! There’s also an obvious spoof of The King and I‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin dance-story, and of course, happy and hopeful Elder Price is a clear stand-in for (How-Do-You-Solve-a-Problem-Like) Maria.
But beyond the specific musical allusions is the show’s structure, which faithfully adheres to that of the traditional book musical. From the straight (well, you know what I mean) leading man with his second-act confidence-booster (“I Believe” (In You?)); to the comic, scene-stealing supporting man; to the wide-eyed ingenue love interest with her “I want” song (“Sal Tlay Ka Siti” — say it out loud), etc etc. Robert Lopez’s score is plucky, Nicholaw’s choreography is Gleefully showchoir-tastic, Parker’s direction is swift and winking, and the entire talented cast is more than game for a laugh and a song.
So what you really want to know is: just how obscene it is, right? And it must be said: not as much as you’d hoped. Yes, there is a song that, when roughly translated, is titled “Fuck You, God;” every so often an unfortunate Ugandan walks-sings across the stage to remind us that he has “maggots in his scrotum;” and there’s this running bit about men raping babies and, um, frogs. But truth be told, foul-mouthed puppets are more shocking and Jerry Springer with his degenerate guests is darker and much dirtier. No, The Book of Mormon does not attempt to reinvent or subvert the musical wheel, nor is it South Park on hilarity-inducing crack. What it does offer is a well-made, very funny, minimally offensive, brilliantly performed, completely original Broadway musical.
That last part bears repeating: a completely original Broadway musical.
Praise be! A miracle indeed.