A GILBERT AND SULLIVAN FOR 2012
The best show of the year has finally arrived. The Book of Mormon is a perfectly packaged fusion of the satire we need in a sassy musical comedy with the entertainment genre that America created and deserves. From the wizards who concocted the all-offending South Park series comes an equally irreverent touring production to occupy the Bank of America Theatre perhaps into 2014–and for every good reason. Reveling in the contradiction between faith and fact, religious hope and real-life fear, this perfect parable is exuberantly profane, crudely compassionate, and equally witty in lyrics, dialogue, performance, dance, notes and theme. Broadway in Chicago has, no question, a huge hit on their hands.
This wonderful collaboration by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone exploits the inexhaustible vein of “fish out of water” humor: It contrasts young, eager-beaver Mormon missionaries on a two-year mini-crusade to proselytize and baptize with their less-than-converted African “beneficiaries.” It’s a marriage made in South Park hell.
It’s also an exercise in opposites that never should attract. Here’s a marginalized, if not crackpot, denomination that believes that Jesus came to America to deliver the third part of the Bible. The angel Moroni visited the martyr Joseph Smith, and directed him to the book, enshrined in gold plates which then mysteriously vanished. After Smith was murdered by a mob, his successful disciple Brigham Young, architect of polygamy and huge families, led the new Mormons into Utah. Now, these Latter Day Saints offer the unedifying message of a mythical American war between Hebrew tribes whom God punished by “reducing” them to blacks and Asians.
Since then, bright-eyed young missionaries travel the world sending the message of Mormonism. Their targets in The Book of Mormon are poverty-ridden Ugandans mired in war and AIDS. In a famine-ridden cesspool, where the warlord Butt Ass Naked kills with impunity and mutilates women with terrible circumcisions – and where the village doctor boldly proclaims “I have maggots in my scrotum” – these well-scrubbed Utahans mean well and offer zilch. The Ugandans also have their own set of superstitions: One native believes that sleeping with virgins prevents AIDS but the only virgins around are babies – which doesn’t discourage him in the least.
The outsiders are themselves caricatures in contrast. Elder Price (Nic Rouleau, recreating his original role) is as narcissistic as idealistic (his song “Mostly Me” says it all), deluded with theological grandeur but sublimating a ton of silent doubt; his ideal destination for healing the heathen is Orlando. Price’s self-appointed best friend Elder Cunningham (a buoyant, doggy-eyed Ben Platt) is a slacker of a follower, a doofus who never read the “boring” Book of Mormon and just wants to be somewhere new. The Africa he expects is straight out of The Lion King, but instead of “Hakuna Matata” (meaning “No Worries”), the Ugandans’ slogan “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is roughly translated as “Fuck You, God.”
Yet, in one of many wicked twists that keep this spoofery nicely nuanced and devilishly ambiguous, it’s Cunningham’s own ignorance that lets him break all 72 rules and improvise his own Salt Lake City gospel to offer hope to the locals and, not incidentally, endear him to the chief’s daughter Nabulungi (Syesha Mercado); their duet “Baptize Me” is a tour-de-force of doubles entendres. Near show’s end, the villagers celebrate the arrival of the Mission President (Christopher Shyer), there to see why these missionaries have baptized so many souls, with their own version of “The Small Cabin of Uncle Thomas” ballet from The King and I: They eagerly act out Cunningham’s ad-libbed credo, much to the horror of his Mormon overseers who disavow these homegrown heretics.
But it all ends amicably, with the Utah boys deciding to pursue and persist with their own kinder cult because, to paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara, “Tomorrow is a Latter Day.”
It’s one of many terrific songs: “Turn It Off,” the missionaries’ answer to unpleasantries such as forbidden yearnings including closeted homosexuality; “All-American Prophet,” the Mormon “creation myth”; “Man Up,” the exuberantly irrelevant first-act finale; “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” a hilariously detailed number in which Price, having given in to doubts and temporarily abandoned Cunningham, gets his just deserts; and the screamingly incongruous “I Am Africa,” in which the vanilla boys burst into their own tribal breakout dance, one of several delicious treats from choreographer Casey Nicholaw.
Everything clicks in this staging by Nicholaw and Parker—Scott Pask’s delightfully detailed scenic drops, Ann Roth’s all-skewering costumes, Brian MacDevitt’s “bottled-lightning” lighting, and Brian Ronan’s sarcastic sound design. Not only should Chicagoans be proud to have a resident company (AKA the 2nd National Tour), but Gilbert and Sullivan would be proud of the entire show.
photos by Joan Marcus
The Book of Mormon
Broadway in Chicago at Bank of America Theatre
for tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit http://www.BroadwayinChicago.com
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