For many of us, a great musical—especially one we’re seeing for the first time—produces a unique type of euphoria. The combination of snappy music, clever lyrics, and dazzling dance numbers, all in the service of a touchingly twisted tale, creates a sublime state of sensory overload.
So it is with the Tony Award–winning The Book of Mormon, which has just landed at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame and Robert Lopez, composer of Avenue Q, have created a masterful piece of smart, provocative, envelope-pushing entertainment.
Fans of the creators’ previous work will not be surprised to learn that The Book of Mormon is often outrageous, tasteless, and gleefully vulgar. They may be surprised to learn that, ultimately, it’s also kind of sweet.
Its characters’ quixotic quest hardly goes as planned. But they do emerge from it with a better sense of who they are and with the knowledge that they’ve genuinely helped others. Their story is irreverent, but it isn’t nihilistic. Not by a long shot.
The show focuses on a pair of young Mormon missionaries, Elder Price (the charismatic Gavin Creel) and Elder Cunningham (the winningly nerdy Jared Gertner). The narcissistic Price is praying to be assigned to Orlando, where he once spent a blissful vacation as a child. Instead, he and the emotionally needy, friendless Cunningham are sent to a remote village in Uganda.
Given the residents’ dire poverty and constant threat of violence posed by a local warlord, the missionaries predictably get nowhere as they search for converts. But inadvertently, Cunningham—who in truth knows more about Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings than about the scriptures supposedly found by Joseph Smith—finds the key to success.
Elder Cunningham’s retelling of the Mormon origin story, spiked with references to the science-fiction adventures he loves and to the issues the villagers face in their daily lives, strikes a chord in his onstage audience. Soon, he’s baptizing enthusiastic locals, including an attractive young woman (the terrific Samantha Marie Ware) who dreams about being whisked away from Uganda to the safety of Salt Lake City.
The show’s basic point—that the literal truth of sacred stories is less important than whether those stories help people live better lives—won’t appeal much to fundamentalists. But for the rest of us, it represents a more than satisfactory way of reconciling religion and reason.
Several of the songs mercilessly (and hilariously) skewer Mormon mythology, but in the end, the show implies that even patently absurd beliefs can be healing. As one of the surprisingly sophisticated villagers pointedly reminds another, there is power in metaphor.
The high-energy production, dazzlingly choreographed by Casey Nicholaw and directed by Nicholaw and Parker, could hardly be bettered; in spite of the show’s R-rated lyrics, its razzle-dazzle is strictly old-school. Longtime musical theater fans will be delighted by its many sly references to past masterpieces of the genre, including The Lion King, which played in this very theater a decade or so ago.
Rodgers and Hammerstein are referenced frequently, albeit in highly skewed form. The show’s play-within-a-play, in which the newly converted villagers convey their highly unorthodox understanding of Mormon doctrine, is clearly patterned after the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” sequence from The King and I, only this third-world dance extravaganza is full of scatological references and includes the miming of several varieties of sexual activity.
Oscar Hammerstein may be rolling over in his grave, but if so, he has a big smile on his face. So will you.
The Book of Mormon plays nightly except Monday through November 25 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For info, call 800-982-2787 or visit here online