By: Kyle Petersen
First off--yes, it was vulgar. And crass. And, at times, even problematic. But, above all, it was great theater.
The Book of Mormon‘s reputation in many ways precedes itself. The musical has had a long critically and commercially successful run on Broadway since its 2011 debut, earning 9 Tony Awards and a Grammy win for the cast recording while expanding to the West End in London and getting two national tours of the show that has led it to gross over $500 million in ticket sales.
Too, the fact that it was written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone has also received plenty of attention. The duo is known for their irreverent send-up satires that are always willing to cross lines and push buttons in the service of humor on the edges that takes cheeky aim at targets large and small. Viewers familiar with their long-running animated comedy or other projects like the all-puppet feature film Team America: World Police will no doubt be prepared (and perhaps even a little immune to) the raunch factor of the musical, while others in the audience at the Koger Center were pretty appalled by the amount of scatological punch lines and beyond-PC language featured in some of the effortlessly catchy tunes that make up the bulk of the show.
Still, the vulgarity was almost beside the point. What surprises most about The Book of Mormon is just how seamlessly good the songs are (credit largely goes to the third writer, Robin Lopez, of Avenue Q fame) and how tight the plot construction and comedy are across its run-time. Using a mix of cartoon hysterics, SNL-style spoofing and genuine musical tropes and beats, the musical tells the story of two Mormon missionaries, Elder Price (Kevin Clay) and Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson), who are a classic odd couple team with Price playing the winsome community favorite and Cunningham the schlubby weirdo-sidekick. Price longs to be sent to Orlando for their mission, but he and Cunningham are instead sent to a village in Uganda where subsequent hijinks ensue with characters like the comically menacing General Butt-Fucking Naked (Corey Jones) and the closeted chapter leader Elder McKinley (Andy Huntington Jones) evolve the duo’s story.
Interwoven alongside the main plot is satirical retellings of the founding mythology of the Mormon church. And it’s here where you might think the musical is on the thinnest ice, but it’s not as bluntly mocking as you might expect. Yes, it has repeated fun with the absurdities of transporting a Middle Eastern religion into the Americas (and conveniently in the church founder’s backyard), but most of the humor takes broad aim at the mythologies that all religions require rather than those specific to the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). And, perhaps even more tellingly, the musical never actually becomes a consummate rejection of religion, just a chronicler of its absurdities. This is why the Ugandan setting works so well for the story’s end--it both allows the missionaries an audience bewildered by their outrageous claims but not indifferent to the need for some sort of salvation. The fact that the writers allow the villagers to embrace a (admittedly bastardized) version of the religion peppered with pop culture mythology additions added by Cunningham is not only telling but essential to the musical’s larger message about religion—silly and mutable, sure, but also somewhat intrinsic for organizing the human experience.
That surprisingly middle ground has made the LDS relatively friendly to the production—they’ve reportedly bought advertisements in the Broadway production’s program, and missionaries were outside the Koger Center chatting attendees up about the show and their past experiences with Mormonism.
Less assured in its politics is the broad and indiscriminate use of African stereotypes and caricatures that more or less serves as a backdrop for the musical’s engagement with religion. While they might deserve some degree of creative license given the satirical nature of the proceedings, it still rings a little harsh that the villagers are the butt of so many jokes, even if it is delivered with a winking self-awareness. That the main ensemble is ten white men who get the bulk of the spotlight just adds additional fuel to the fire.
What’s worse on that front is probably the character of Nabalungi (played with innocent grace by Kayla Pecchioni), the daughter of Mafala, the village resident who serves as a guide to the missionaries. Nabalungi serves as a love interest for Cunningham and as an eager vessel for the proselytizing ways of the missionaries, and neither motivation is particularly well-explained given the villages established indifference to missionaries of all stripes prior to Price and Cunningham’s arrival. That the lone major black character becomes a convenient agent of the white missionaries without the even token development given to Price and Cunningham feels like an unforced error, particularly in light of the colonialist tropes that are being reenacted in the satire.
Despite these quibbles, the show excels in so many small, sly moments that it’s well-worth engaging with critically. From its exploration of the narcissistic motivations at the heart of so much missionary work in Price to Cunningham’s fluid relationship with religion, truth and popular culture, there’s plenty to unpack with these two characters, particularly given the latter’s success and the former’s emotional angst in Act 2. Clay and Pierson are both more than up to the task, each embodying the same spirit brought by Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in the original production. The ensemble as a whole is uniformly strong, with fabulous voices and various tertiary characters proving to be every bit the equal of the leads.
As for the staging itself, the giant stained glass outline made a dramatic impact during the opening number, and the clever design allowed the backdrop to be peeled back numerous times for both the Uganda set and a brief-but-dramatic fiery depiction of hell with aplomb. The amount of classic dance numbers had a self-referential vibe that almost felt like a Family Guy episode, but with a real joy and sincerity that makes it easy to see why the production was generally beloved by traditional musical fanatics. The “orchestra” for the show, led by keyboardist Andrew Graham, brought to life a giant-sized score with just a small quintet of performers using a variety of programming tricks and rock bombast to win the day.
And, as I mentioned briefly at the beginning, it’s easy when talking about the musical to omit just how great the musical numbers are here (and why the Grammy win is hardly a surprise). Big ensemble numbers like the opening “Hello!” training montage and the winking, necessary colonialist reveal of “I Am Africa” showcased the 10 Mormon missionaries as powerful vocalists and seasoned performers, while the Ugandan-oriented set pieces like the vulgar-apex “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and the hilarious, bombshell laden mis-telling of Mormon mythology “Joseph Smith American Moses” are storytelling and comedic highlights that, while still somewhat guilty of the problems mentioned earlier, are nonetheless fascinating, sharply constructed tunes full of real zingers and insight.
In short, it’s a night of great songs, laughs, and intellectual challenges. Not bad for for a bunch of potty-mouthed cartoonists, eh?
The Book of Mormon is currently at the Koger Center for the Arts through May 20. Head to kogercenterforthearts.com for times and ticket information.