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.”