Review of Broadway’s ‘The Book of Mormon’

— Matt and Trey: Where have you been all my life?

I know, I know: You’ve been indulging for years in a little scatological side business called “South Park.” But now, you’ve discovered your true calling — as the wit-spewing class clowns of Broadway.

Along with Robert Lopez, one of the uproarious brains behind “Avenue Q,” Matt Stone and Trey Parker have devised “The Book of Mormon,” the pricelessly entertaining act of musical-comedy subversion that opened Thursday night at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

The mighty O’Neill himself would have to have given it up for this extraordinarily well-crafted musical assault on all things holy. The marvel of “The Book of Mormon” is that even as it profanes some serious articles of faith, its spirit is anything but mean. The ardently devout and comedically challenged are sure to disagree. Anyone else should excitedly approach the altar of Parker, Stone and Lopez and expect to drink from a cup of some of the sweetest poison ever poured.

Among the evening’s delights are four performances that intensify the delirium and are surely minting the actors as embryonic stars. The suavely self-parodying Andrew Rannells, a sort of crooning version of Ryan Reynolds, plays the central role of Mormon missionary Elder Price; Josh Gad, a turbo-powered comic engine, portrays his outwardly offensive partner in flock-expansion, Elder Cunningham.

Nikki M. James brings a becoming charm to the role of a yearning Ugandan villager, Nabulungi, and Rory O’Malley offers a delicious turn as Elder McKinley, a Mormon outreach worker with a hilarious recipe for dealing with his hangups.

The terrific first-act tap number O’Malley leads, “Turn it Off,” is a paean to the glories of self-suppression — one of the givens about religious life and an aspect that is sent up again and again.

This song and many others, expertly choreographed by co-director Casey Nicholaw, bring to mind the screwball ministrations of Mel Brooks, whose consummate irreverence is clearly being summoned. That sense of anarchy is reflected most buoyantly in the person of the irresistible Gad, who, with his appealingly flailing mix of geek and hip, seems a close cousin to Jack Black.

“The Book of Mormon,” though, is a more refined piece of musical theater than anything to come from Brooks’s nutty pen, and oddly enough, it’s more conventional, too. Yes, it has its truly coarse moments, as demonstrated by the participants (including Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer) of the second-act “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.”

Yet no matter how brazenly the writers question the precepts of Mormonism — and boy, do they ever make mincemeat of the religion’s gen­esis — their respect for the traditions of the American musical borders on devotional.

That may be a function of the collaboration Parker and Stone forge with Lopez; the polish of “Avenue Q,” a lampoon of the serenely plastic messages of children’s television, is apparent in the sure-handed plotting and character development of “The Book of Mormon.”

Unlike the self-conscious raucousness of the recent “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” another musical aimed at 20- and 30-somethings, “Mormon” affectionately embraces Broadway’s past. The piece is ultimately more effective as pop entertainment because it refreshes the old templates rather than viewing them as worn out.

The musical is a true fusion, too, of the cleverness laced with cruelty of “South Park” and “Avenue Q.” “The Book of Mormon” is the buddy story of the mismatched elders, Price and Cunningham: The former is a golden boy of the church whose dream is to be assigned for his two years of compulsory missionary work to Orlando; the latter, an overbearing nerd who most vitally wants to know where you stand on the crucial issue of “Star Wars” versus “Star Trek.”

A sharp prologue begins a thread of outrageous re-enactments of Mormonism’s roots — and then follows a gleeful opening number, “Hello,” that depicts the regimen of door-to- door proselytizing: “Hello, my name is Elder Price/And I would like to share with you the most amazing book!” Rannells chirps, as a chorus in white shirts, black slacks and laminated name tags chimes in with doorstep come-ons.

Rannells and Gad are chosen to be partners and assigned to a posting as far from Orlando as might be imaginable. Their shifting fortunes in a blighted, disease-racked corner of Uganda, where the denizens sing a deceptively sunny parody of “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King,” become a running joke. It’s the unlikelier of the pair who finds his calling in Africa.

It’s easier, of course, not to feel stung by comedy when your background is not the one being gored. But even with the wallop of derision that Mormonism comes in for on this evening, the wider subject for ribbing is that almost unbearable brand of optimism Americans tend to want to impose on the rest of the world. “A Mormon just believes,” Rannells’s Price sings at one point, a lyric that also seems to hold true for a national mind-set, one that clings to a faith that American hearts always remain in the right place.

“The Book of Mormon” expresses a giddy contempt for that innocence, in one of the most joyously acidic bundles Broadway has unwrapped in years. (Applause, too, for set designer Scott Pask’s gloomy rendering of an African village.) The sin it takes such fond aim at — blind faith — is one that this musical suggests observes no religious bounds.

The Book of Mormon

Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. Directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Brian Ronan; orchestrations, Larry Hochman; music director, Stephen Oremus; choreography, Nicholaw. With Michael Potts, Lewis Cleale. About 2½ hours. At Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St., New York. Visit www.telecharge.com or call 800-432-7250.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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