Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: The Book of Mormon actually lives up to the hype.
That’s really saying something, since there has been a tidal wave of hoopla carrying this Tony-winning musical comedy by Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez around the world. It’s a relief to simply sit back at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto and listen to the laughter let loose.
And judging by the gleeful guffaws coming out of mouths of all ages on opening night, the South Park boys’ trademark mix of scatological and satirical with a dash of the surreal has become entirely mainstream since the pair were accused of corrupting youth with Kyle, Cartman and the rest in the late nineties.
The Book of Mormon is a bromance of sorts about two 19-year-old Mormons assigned to a mission to Uganda.
Overachiever Elder Price (Mark Evans) is stunned that God has not answered his prayers and sent him to Orlando, while misfit Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) is just happy to be paired with a “best friend” who, according to mission rule 72, is not allowed to leave his side for the next two years.
As the two arrive in Africa, Parker and Stone subvert expectations of a congenial cultural clash in the style of a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical like King and I or the idealized otherness of a modern one like The Lion King.
In the village where they are posted, Elders Price and Cunningham instead find angry, impoverished locals who sing songs with unprintable lyrics about a series of awful circumstances that escalate from dysentery to AIDS to a warlord intent on coming to circumcise all their women.
As with when I saw the show on Broadway, I found the satire the creators aims at the do-gooding Westerners to be sharp as a tack – but their approach to the Africans to be indecisive.
Parker and Stone delight at dispelling romanticized stereotypes, but often simply displace them with more cynical ones. They have so much fun playing with misconceptions of Africa that they never settle on a solid concept for how to actually portray the Ugandans in their show.
The villagers are mostly expendable extras, with the exception of romantic interest Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware) who never really expands. Her yearning for Sal Tlay Ka Siti (sound it out) falls flat compared to Elder Price’s passion for Orlando – and she is the victim of the few running gags in the show that can’t go the distance.
The rest of the characters are well-carved caricatures, however. Strong singer Mark Evans is pure misguided moxie as Elder Price, and he does a good job of showing his character’s pride curdling into petulance when things don’t go his way.
Christopher John O’Neill, a sketch comedian making his musical theatre debut, is funnier as the ingratiating fabulist Cunningham – whose faults turn out to be strengths in the prophet-selling business. His physicality is hilarious, though his lack of vocal training is noticeable in the Meat Loaf-mocking song Man Up, which leaves him breathless.
What really stood out for me on this second viewing was the relentless inventiveness of Casey Nicholaw’s choreography and direction (the latter, with Parker) – and how often it carries the musical over rough patches and one-joke songs. His tap number that accompanies the Mormon mission’s ode to repression, Turn It Off, is brilliant, but his Busby Berkeley meets Beelzebub conjuring of a Spooky Mormon Hell Dream is even more enjoyably off-the-wall than I remembered. How did I miss seeing Johnny Cochrane playing the bongos among the chaos the first time?
The Book of Mormon doesn’t exactly mock religion – it simply presents the tenets of one particular theology at face value and invites you to laugh at it. It’s not just Mormonism, really, that can’t stand being described out of context – the same could be said of any religion and most artistic manifestos. But, in the end, Parker, Stone and Lopez come down firmly on the side of reshaping the world via metaphor of any kind; it is no smarmy atheist routine.
The Book of Mormon may not quite be the second coming, but at least it doesn’t regurgitate old jokes the way other musical comedies this century like Spamalot and The Producers have. It should convert many to an art form that keeps being declared dead, but is always resurrected.
The Book of Mormon continues until June 9. Visit http://mirvish.com/ for tickets.