Review: The Book of Mormon
By Perry Tannenbaum
It’s been quite a run for Mormons over the past 25+ years, beginning with the Pitt family in Angels in America in the early ‘90s and continuing with the Mitt run for the presidency in 2012. Queen City theatergoers had a front row seat for the upswell of Mormon topicality when Charlotte Rep brought Wendy Hammond’s cathartic Ghostman to town about the same time that Tony Kushner’s masterwork was wending its way from LA to London and then to Broadway.
Yet ironically, the most informative emanation from Salt Lake City – the one most fully unfurling the spiritual lineage of Mormon the prophet, the Angel Moroni, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young – is the most mocking, irreverent, and satirical. Right on schedule for the Romney candidacy, The Book of Mormon hit Broadway in the spring of 2011, instantly affirming that South Park and Avenue Q, the previous successes of its writing team, hadn’t been flukes.
Still running strong at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York, The Book of Mormon is now visiting Belk Theater for the third time in the last five years – and its freshness and outrageousness have hardly faded at all. True, the opening bell-ringing shtick of “Hello!” is starting to lose some of its original sharpness, and the sublime conceit and missionary confidence of Elder Price’s “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” has become less priceless as Romney’s run recedes into memory. On the third time around, the chief pleasure of the “Hasa Diga Eebowai” shtick and the running “maggots” gag is watching them work their vulgar magic on first-timers to the show.
Ah, but that leaves a profusion of vulgarity that still hit me hard on press night. What I see more clearly than ever is that the book of The Book of Mormon was an exuberant explosion of creativity in a writers’ room, when longtime partners in South Park crime, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, teamed up with Avenue Q whiz Robert Lopez for their first mega-collaboration, taking aim at a wondrously vulnerable target. Such a barrage of hilarity doesn’t seem possible from one man alone. This is a trio of jokesters feeding off one another while crafting a storyline that revolves around three fairly rounded characters. A mischievous “what else can we do?” mantra underlies everything.
The Mormon repressions of “Turn It Off” echo the juvenile Avenue Q simplicities of “Hello!” with extra bite, and the first act closer, “Man Up,” conjures up all the signature raunchiness – and bold tastelessness – of South Park. But here’s the thing: the three collaborators layer on a level of pretentiousness that is new to all of them. “Man Up” grows into an operatic trio before the curtain comes down for intermission. Singing over each other, the buffoonish Elder Cunningham primes himself to avoid screwing up for once, Elder Price wrestles with his first failure, and African ingenue Nabulungi longs for freedom, redemption, and Salt Lake.
We get a foretaste of the pretension to come in the illuminated proscenium evoking the stagecraft of Phantom and Wicked, but it doesn’t reach full flower until Elder Price’s “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” fantasia after intermission, topped off with its caffeinated Starbucks symbolism. It’s funny even if you didn’t know that Mormons must abstain from coffee. So much of Act 2 click because of its generous infusion of Mel Brooks incongruity, which ultimately plunges over the edge of political incorrectness when we reach the anthemic “I Am Africa.” The whole bunch of youthful Mormon missionaries declare their identification with the squalor and barbarity of their new Uganda homeland.
Unable to stick to his missionary script with Elder Price’s verve and fidelity, Elder Cunningham, who hasn’t read any Bible, leans on the mythology of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings to imaginatively make over scripture and convert the heathen. But perhaps the most irreverent desecration of hallowed culture is the takedown of R&H’s The King and I. Instead of darling Thai tykes performing an adorably distorted Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we’re treated to deluded Ugandans disfiguring holy writ in a playlet doused with lewd acts and ailments not readily associated with either Moses or Joseph Smith. We can see disaster looming as the Missionary President sits down to watch this spectacle, and we can’t wait.
Connor Peirson is as shambling, slovenly, and clingy as any Elder Cunningham we’ve seen before. What sets this pudgy wonder apart are his lightning-fast dance moves, limber feats that disdain gracefulness. His unabashed nerdiness marks him as emphatically as his untucked, wrinkled shirt. His initial puppydog worship of Price and his suggestive shyness toward Nabulungi in the modestly veiled baptism scene would both be so precious and adorable were it not for Pierson’s intractable disorderliness. In the end, it really does take a giant leap of faith to believe in him as a religious leader.
And in the end, with the onset of humility, Kevin Clay as Elder Price turns out to be almost as good as he thinks he is. He’s a bit blander at times than the Romney and Rubio types we’ve seen previously, but he is also the best dancer we’ve seen in this role. Breaking through to individuality in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” Clay’s moves were the key to keeping the ornate nightmare absolutely fresh.
Although I found Kayla Pecchioni’s syllabification of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” to be a work-in-progress that muted Nabulungi’s warm comedy, she came through nicely in both the mock tender Act 2 “Baptize Me” duet and the more broadly comical “Joseph Smith American Moses.” Other characters are cartoon thin, but there’s often enough there for an actor to excel. Andy Huntington Jones certainly capitalized on his chances as the semi-closeted district leader, Elder McKinley; Jacques C. Smith as Mafala radiated a sunny geniality leading the “Hasa Diga Eebowai” before lowering the boom on its profane meaning, and Corey Jones brought fearsome credibility to warlord General Butt-Fucking Naked.
Wielding the golden tablets handed down to mortals by the Heavenly Father, Ron Bohmer looks appropriately Mosaic as Smith in a costume designed by Ann Roth. If you’ve seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, you’ll recognize the wig that Bohmer gets to work with. Scenic designer Scott Pask achieves an Emerald City aura at Latter Day’s HQ in Salt Lake before targeting The Lion King for a vicious takedown with his squalid African village.
My most enthusiastic behind-the-scenes kudos are reserved for Casey Nicholaw, who co-directs with Parker and consecrates the spectacle with his zany choreography. Just when I began to find a nick or two in the comedy chassis of The Book of Mormon, the ensemble’s dance exploits helped me discover the polished chrome in the grillwork.