When the young missionary men march forward to give the opening anthem in Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez’s The Book of Mormon, you instantly feel that you’re in good hands. These wide-eyed Mormon educators wear starched white shirts, black ties, and dark slacks, and there’s a na´ve earnestness in their voices as they insistently greet us with a litany of “Hello’s.” Their eyes are aglow; their voices rise like incense through the orchestra and mezzanine levels of the Eugene O’Neill Theater; and though the opener is only a warm-up for the more blasphemous numbers that follow, it efficiently introduces the musical’s premise and its two likable protagonists, Elder Cunningham and Elder Price.
To be sure, the entire show is a religious satire that runs roughshod over Mormons and some articles of their faith. But that proviso given, the musical is clean as any street in Orlando and sweet as freshly-fallen manna in the desert. You meet Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) and Elder Price (Andrew Ranells), a hilariously mismatched Mormon pair who are sent on a dangerous journey to a poor disadvantaged part of Uganda. Elder Cunningham is an insecure, overweight, chronic liar, while Elder Price is an enthusiastic, handsome, and devout fellow. But when they arrive in Uganda, and see the appalling conditions existing in a native village, where famine, poverty and AIDS are common, they soon realize that the real Africa bears little resemblance to The Lion King. Worse, former Mormon missionaries have been sent to Uganda earlier but failed to convert the locals. Not surprisingly, Elders Cunningham and Price feel a bit shaky as they begin their overseas mission.
Scott Pask has designed a clean sunny set for this musical, promising that all the goings-on will be gloriously in plain view. Casey Nicholaws’ choreography is top-notch. There’s plenty of old-fashioned tap-dancing, plus some Martha Graham-like sequences that add a modern feel to the proceedings. Ann Roth’s costumes run the gamut from the Mormons’ squeaky clean outfits to the rag-tag tribal dress of the locals. The creative team is working on a large canvas here, but nobody overplays his, or her, hand.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of “South Park” fame) call their Broadway musical an “atheist’s love letter to religion,” and it’s easy to see why. It’s a morality tale turned inside-out, and pokes fun at formal religion and rigid belief systems. Their new show gives clear nods to The Lion King, The Sound of Music, and The King and I (not to mention copious references to Lord of the Rings), but it has its own music and vibrations. What it does share with the other works, however, are themes revolving around the mystery of religion and compassion for one’s neighbor.
By far the most beguiling number of the show is “Turn It Off,” a chorus-line song about repression that intermittently envelops Elder McKinley (Rory O’Malley) and the missionaries in pitch darkness. The scene begins in gleaming lights (lighting by Brian MacDevitt), but as the audience watches the virtuoso dancers tap away, the lights suddenly fade out, only to go on again, and so forth until the dance ends. The number ultimately reveals the psychological hopscotch that people will play out when faced with socially unacceptable ideas. Not only does this clever segment get a laugh, it ingeniously illuminates the human psyche. Another enchanting piece is “Baptize Me,” which captures the charming innocence of both Nabulungi (Nikki M. James) and Elder Cunningham at her Mormon christening. Indeed there’s not a dull song in the show. And though some of the foul-mouthed lyrics (“I’ve got maggots in my scrotum!”) might offend a few theatergoers, the songs are never mean-spirited. In fact, this musical may well acquit itself as the most pure-hearted show of the Broadway season.
In a cast that can boast of multiple talents, special praise belongs to the leads. Josh Gadd, as the insecure Elder Cunningham, is just right as the nerdy missionary who must “man-up” to his dangerous situation in Uganda. And Andrew Rannells provides a convincing Elder Price whose psychological and physical journeys convey the dilemma of a sincere young man reaching for maturity. Both actors are extremely versatile in their performances, and burrow to the real meat of their roles.
With its terrific book and songs and first-rate acting, this musical is heaven-sent to theatergoers. Under the direction of Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, it will put you on Cloud Nine for 2 hours. The marquee at the Eugene O’Neill Theater boasts that it’s “God’s favorite musical.” You might not buy into that hype, but it would surely be a sin to miss it.
Eugene O’Neill Theater, located at 230 West 49th Street Open run.
Tickets: $59-$137, Phone (212) 239-6200