Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 24, 2011
The Book of Mormon Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker. Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Music direction and vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman & Stephen Oremus. Cast: Josh Gad, Andrew Rannells, Nikki M. James, Rory O’Malley, Michael Potts, Lewis Cleale, Scott Barnhardt, Justin Bohon, Graham Bowen, Ta’rea Campbell, Darlesia Cearcy, Kevin Duda, Jared Gertner, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Brian Tyree Henry, Tyson Jennette, Clark Johnsen, John Eric Parker, Benjamin Schrader, Michael James Scott, Brian Sears, Jason Michael Snow, Nick Spangler, Lawrence Stallings, Rema Webb, Maia Nkenge Wilson, Tommar Wilson.
Easy: by being too Broadway. Or rather, “Broadway” (quotation marks included), the corrupted notion of recent seasons that sees showmaking as something to refer to rather than aspire to. And, unfortunately, that’s the fate that’s befallen this show. That it doesn’t prevent the new musical at the Eugene O’Neill from the being the freshest and funniest to open in several seasons is a miracle. (It’s undoubtedly the most subversive to open in decades.) But that it isn’t as good as Parker and Stone are capable of isn’t merely a missed opportunity — it’s a colossal letdown.
In nearly all their screen works, Parker and Stone have displayed an eerily unerring knack for mating form and content. South Park’s blend of animation-fueled innocence with scatological punctuation and corrosive social commentary has kept it at the forefront of both television artistry and news headlines for nearly 14 years. And in their live-action movies, they’ve mocked specific genres — the rags-to-riches Hollywood tale (Orgazmo), sports biopic (BASEketball), Michael Bay action flick (Team America: World Police) — without letting their off-center points of view overwhelm their point.
Throughout roughly half of their debut Broadway effort, Parker and Stone evince their usual diabolical way of working. The story they’re telling about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, with which their Colorado upbringing made them intimately familiar, concerns two young Mormon missionaries from Salt Lake City, Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), who are assigned the task of baptizing inhabitants of a poor, disease-ravaged village in Uganda. You’re laughing already, right? Then you’ll be rolling on the floor when you learn that this is a musical in which AIDS infection, infant rape, and female genital mutilation aren’t just the foci of song lyrics — they’re major plot points.
The hilarity continues as the Elders try to convert the villagers, with the help of their small but determined group of Mormon colleagues: Elder Price is faced with learning that, despite everything he’d been taught, he’s not the solution to the world’s problems; Elder Cunningham must cope with spiritual desolation and the potential of a lasting relationship (of some kind) with Nabulungi (Nikki M. James), the daughter of the village’s prefect (Michael Potts). All of this, by the way, while under the gun — literally — of the sadistic general (Brian Tyree Henry) who wants to subjugate the women and isn’t above shooting the men. In the face. In full view of everyone. In one case, including the audience.
But things do not stay at this elevated level for the show’s full two-and-a-half-hour running time, and when it stumbles, it falls headfirst into a familiarity every bit as crushing as its originality is uplifting. Jokes about The Lion King and The Sound of Music are remarkably stale, even if the former receives a South Park–like twist. The first-act finale parodies “One Day More” from Les Misérables, but without the zesty adventure of a similar number in the South Park movie, Bigger, Longer & Uncut — even the stadium rock-and-roll lights descending from the flies are old-hat humor. And the stage-filling tap interlude that emerges from a jaunty charm song about how Mormons hide their feelings (“Turn It Off”), complete with magically appearing sequined vests, is the ultimate in theatrical cognitive disconnect.
This lambasting of musical-theatre tropes that never actually existed in an equivalent form, which gained ground in the early 2000s with Urinetown and The Producers, came to its full, innovation-bereft fruition on Broadway in shows like Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone, and this season’s Elf — all of which, oddly enough, were either directed and/or choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who performs both functions here. (Parker is billed as codirector.) Milquetoast-mainstream Nicholaw, whose dances have met no clichés they won’t kick-ball-change with, specializes in real fluff, while Parker and Stone hide behind the illusion of it to say whatever’s on their minds. The aesthetics don’t blend at all, and make far too much of The Book of Mormon the one thing it need never have become at all: conventional.
You see this in Scott Pask’s set design as well, which except for an early Salt Lake City dreamscape, veers toward the cheap-looking and unimaginative. (Brian MacDevitt’s lights are serviceable; Ann Roth injects a bit more whimsy with her costumes, especially for the second-hand-wearing Ugandans.) There’s even a “fashionable” illiteracy in the lyrics, with are heavily dotted with false rhymes and improper stresses, things that don’t regularly show up in either Parker and Stone’s songs, or the ones that Lopez wrote with Jeff Marx in the Tony-winning Avenue Q.
Almost as often, other ideas explode with life. Far cleverer are the likes of “Joseph Smith American Moses,” in which the villagers recount their (flawed) understanding of Mormonism’s history; “I Am Africa,” in which the Mormons claim ownership over their land; “All-American Prophet,” a ruthlessly bizarre and pro-American spin on Joseph Smith; and “I Believe,” in which Elder Price steels himself for his greatest conversion challenge: the violent general. (It contains the priceless lyric, “I believe / That in 1978 God suddenly changed his mind about black people.”)
The whiplash nature of the show makes it difficult for the actors to deliver consistent performances. Best overall is James, whose crushing sadness as Nabulungi gives her everywhere to evolve as the ups and downs of the Elders determine her own fortunes. (Her underplaying also makes her songs, about the mythical Utah and the erotic characteristics of baptism, funnier than they might otherwise be.) Potts and Henry are also nicely committed to their roles, if a bit too eager to grin in them. Gad is essentially recreating his performance as William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, to minimal effect — the double-outsider nature of his character does not make ease easy. And as exciting as Rannells’s clarion tenor is, he explores only one level as a young man sprinting the emotional gamut: What’s the point in seeing him so far up if we never see him equally far down?
It’s details like that — more than bits about The Clapper or sight gags with Jeffrey Dahmer — that would park this show most firmly in the Parker-Stone oeuvre. That it’s half in is already much more than most musicals could offer but a little only makes you crave more. The final scenes inspire such deep caring for the Elders, the villagers, and the faith they’re growing to share, expanding the story without violating it, that you might be shocked to discover you were watching a spiritual, sentimental musical all the time. You might even call them (gasp) traditional. Whatever they are, they’re what musicals are supposed to be. The myriad moments that The Book of Mormon is most “Broadway,” however, are anything but.