It’s back in Boston for a another run. From Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the folks who gave you the world’s first animated talking poo in “South Park,” it’s “The Book of Mormon.” Two and a half hours of merriment and mirth and scatological humor and a celebratory sendup of a particular religion, in keeping with the Parker-Stone work on “South Park.” It’s a fetching and profane musical set mostly in Uganda where you will find much of the poor folks enduring a very bad round of dysentery. You can take the boys out of the toilet, but you can’t take the toilet humor out of the boys.
Yes, “The Book of Mormon,” which set records on Broadway is at the Colonial Theater through Oct. 11 . Does it have class? It has, to quote a song by the Upper Crust, class up the ass!
Our story begins in 1827 with Joseph Smith, who due to the influence of an angel called Moroni, miraculously finds gold plates with the latest word from God the Jews buried in his backyard on one of their trips to what would become North America many centuries ago. Smith, rather than showing these tablets to anyone, has translated them and those translations became the third book of the Bible, “The Book of Mormon” and the foundation of the Church of Latter Day Saints (and by Latter Day, they mean post-death).
Then, we get a quick, uh, irreverent skip-through history of how the Mormons set up shop via Brigham Young in Salt Lake City.
Our main story commences: Modern times. A group of young male Mormon missionary trainees are cheerily practicing (in song) their doorbell rings and their “Hello! My name is Elder ____” greeting, awaiting assignment to some nice, pleasant foreign land where the strangers are amenable to a hearing the good word about a very strange and different religion. France for one pair! Norway for another! Some excellent countries. Not so for Elder Price (Mark Evans, slender, Ken Doll-like/n young Romney-esque) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill, fat, insecure, obsequious) who are paired together, to the delight of Cunningham (finally he has a friend!) and the repressed displeasure of Price (he feigns happiness and humility, Cunningham is clearly a loser and it turns out hasn’t even read The Book of Mormon.). The song that binds them together is “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” where Price states the bond the duo are supposed to share, but the egotistical reality he sees.
Price can’t wait for his assignment, prays it’s Orlando, and is miffed (but tries not to show it) when it’s Uganda. Orlando does pop up later in the show, as part of a brilliant dream-into-nightmare sequence. (The “South Park guys really love depicting hell in all their work. More later on this bit.)
And from this setup we’re jettisoned to a Ugandan village, where things truly suck for the natives. The two Elders are robbed as soon as they get there. There’s the neighboring gun-toting warlord who wants to over-run the locals and perform female circumcisions. He’s an eye-patched fellow by the name of General Butt-Fucking-Naked (Derrick Williams). There’s grinding poverty and AIDS, of course. As AIDS seems to have struck most everyone, one man decides in order to fuck a virgin, the only way he can be sure of doing that is this: “I’m going to rape a baby!” (Did you wince? Yeah, we did.)
In the village people are starving on the streets, but they have a simple little phrase they sing that makes them feel better about their misery. No, it’s not “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”from “Mary Poppins” or “Hakuna matata” from “The Lion King” – though it does sound a lot like the latter in its “Iko Iko”-esque glee. It’s “Hasa diga, Eebowai,” which the Elders learn to their dismay translates into “Fuck you, God.” The villagers often punctuate that joyous phrase with an upraised middle finger and broad smile. I believe when they expand the sentiment they sing “in the ass, mouth and cunt.” (Yep, these playwrights use words you never heard in the Bible, as Simon and Garfunkel once sang.)
You’d think this would be a tough group to convert and you’d be right. Cunningham has a bit of difficulty convincing the villagers that the Mormon way is right for them. Even if were all hunky-dory with the Morman plan for the future, there is that one bit in the past in the Book of Mormon about how God punished bad people by having their skin turn black. (This took a U-turn in 1978, when God changed his mind about that.) But, the notion puts the villagers out of sorts.
But, as we found out at the beginning of the play, Cunningham has a pathological ability to lie – he’s kinda like Jon Lovitz’s old “SNL” liar character – and he sings “I’m making things up again!” So, he gives the Book of Mormon a few twists that make mollify them, among them the tale about Joseph Smith fucking a frog which the male villager should do instead of raping a child. (Yeah, I know.) This is pretty transgressed stuff – remember the Yuks that came from the early comedy of Sam Kinston? – and it makes for some simultaneous gut-busting laughter combined with expressions of “Ew!”
“The Book of Mormon,” directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw (the latter also did choreography) is, by design, scatological and sacrilegious. It’s rude and crude and it’s not dissimilar to what they do as a matter of course on “South Park” – their day job as they call it. For years, the duo delightfully (and semi-viciously) has skewered any and all sacred cows, including all religions. (A 2003 “South Park” episode was “All About Mormons.”) They’re equal opportunity offenders, be they agnostics or atheists. They are certainly well aware of the power religion has to, uh, persuade people that the fairy tale is true and it will aid them in getting to this place called heaven. (That’s the “latter day” when you become a “saint.”) How this affects you may depend on your religious bent and your tolerance for poking fun at other people’s faith. As it happens, I’m on the agnostic side of the fence, having been raised Catholic – I’m in recovery – and finding myself quite at home with the parody of Stone and Parker, not to mention the snarly atheistic humor of Bill Maher and the late George Carlin, and the writing of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes.
As with the “South Park,” “The Book of Mormon” jumps moods, scenes and musical genres at will. Gross/revolting mutates for a minute into tender/touching and then lurches back again. It makes no sense, except it does. There’s some “Jesus Christ Superstar” in here – the catchy songs, the semi-blasphemous mayhem (much more that way than “Superstar,” actually) – with the catchy tunes written by Parker, Stone and “Q Avenue” songwriter Robert Lopez. Let’s face it: If the tunes didn’t work – both lyrically and melodically – we’d be dealing with something you’d perceive as flat-out nasty. The album won a Grammy in 2011 for Best Musical Theater album.
The young Mormon missionaries seem to be either gay or repressed heterosexuals – there is one man, Elder McKinley (Gary Henson) who is explicitly gay and has to work extra hard to “turn it off.” Yes, “Turn It Off” is the song he (and his pals) sing about the simple way the Mormons have devised for taking away bad thoughts or negative reactions to bad things. You just turn ‘em off, easy as flicking a light switch. All there is to it! There is also budding sexual tension between local beauty Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware) and the virgin Cunningham, that climaxes during a baptism (or is it sex?) behind a white sheet. Earlier, Cunningham has told us: “She is such a hot shade of black, like mocha chino!”
Price is despairing of the duo’s lack of success in conversion. He’s on the eve of chucking it all, abandoning his partner and his mission in Uganda and at a bus stop. He falls asleep and dreams of the glories of Orlando and its orderly theme parks filled with nice white people. But the Orlando façade is torn down and rather he finds he’s in hell and it’s a roastingly hot song-and-dance piece. (The gay Elder later says he has that hell dream every night. The song is called “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.”) In this particular hell, a guitar-wielding Satan rules the roost, but there are numerous lesser devils with pitchforks, dancing skeletons (Grateful Dead fans?), Genghis Khan, Jeffery Dahmer and Adolf Hitler, along with dancing “Starbucks”-esque coffee cups. (Good Mormons don’t drink coffee?/Starbucks should burn in hell?/both?) Anyway, the torment poor Price goes through is a hoot.
Cunningham meanwhile has emboldened himself by singing “Man Up,” and, as they say, growing a pair. Part of this, of course, involves his skill at making things up so his the new book he teaches the villagers has a lot to do with “Star Wars” imagery and other random plucks from Western pop culture. This works up to a point until Cunningham is called on the carpet when his superiors come to Uganda to congratulate them and the villagers serenade him with what they’ve learned, which, of course, is modern fiction added to the ancient fiction. The villagers turn the tables by saying, heck, we knew these weren’t literal – they were metaphors. And, so, everyone joins together to defeat General Butt-Fucking-Naked and his gang, converting them in the process, and at the end the Ugandans, too, are going door to door, asking if the folks have heard about “The Book of Arnold.” (That’s Cunningham’s first name.)
These two acts hurtle along in helter-skelter fashion. Did I miss some of the wordplay and lyrics? No question. (Where is that pause and rewind key?)
What are the themes? Is this religion a crock and by implication all of them? If some sort of faith does help people to cope, does it matter if it’s truth or fiction? Put another way, can being bullshitted and even knowing you’re being bullshitted help you get through your lot in life? (It should be noted the Mormons – the real church – has bought ads in the Playbill for the show. One reads: “You’ve seen the play …. Now Read The Book” and “The Book Is Always Better.” Ha-ha. Sheesh. This play isn’t really going to make you want to dig deeper into this doo-doo. Oh, no offense.)
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