There’s some brilliant writing in “The Book of Mormon,” which opens tonight on Broadway from the creators of “South Park.” There’s also some lazy writing. Maybe I’m holding it to a higher standard than usual because I had to buy my tickets at a severely high premium from an online scalper. The “Mormon” producers are trying to create the illusion that the show is the biggest hit ever. They’ve so limited the seating for tonight’s opening that at Wednesday night’s show I spotted Angela Lansbury, New Yorker editor David Remnick, New York City film commissioner Katherine Oliver, and the New York Times’s David Carr. It makes you wonder who was invited to the premiere.
“The Book of Mormon” has been hyped to me as the most outrageous show I’ve ever seen. Not true. It is built as a very conventional musical that often aims for and achieves moments of greatness. The “F word” is used constantly to spice up some otherwise turgid areas. There are plenty of other words that don’t come up at the Mormon Tabernacle, like clitoris and scrotum. Shocked? (Yes it’s a Broadway musical with a running subplot about clitoral circumcision and maggots in the scrotum of an African local. Roll over, Cole Porter.)
Some things “The Book of Mormon” doesn’t have: a list of its songs in the Playbill–I’ve never seen that before. It also lacks an editor in Act 1 to move things along. Also in Act 1, I got confused: are they lampooning the Mormons or celebrating them? This may be deliberate because in Act 2 things perk up: it’s a lampoon, it’s cutting, and Mormons who maybe enjoyed Act 1 get the point now. This is “South Park” country, after all.
Here’s a little plot: a bunch of young elders are sent to Uganda on a Mormon conversion mission. The main pair are like the Bialystock and Bloom of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Josh Gad is Nathan Lane, Jack Black, Jonah Hill and Lou Costello all rolled into one. His Arnold Cunningham is an overweight Tasmanian Devil. His cohort, played by Andrew Rannelis, is Matthew Broderick and Bud Abbott, the straight man. Price is bright eyed and bushy-tailed, but not for long. Later, when Price gets his copy of the real Book of Mormon shoved up his derriere, he gets the message, literally.
The Ugandans are skeptical, but Elder Cunningham (Gad), a pathological liar (very Jon Lovitz) convinces 20 of them to convert after telling them all kinds of scatological, made up stories about the history of Mormonism. These stories will get him in trouble later when the local Ugandans put on a play for the visiting head of the Church. What they’ve learned is a hilarious retelling of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s journey that includes shocking language and anecdotes that can’t be repeated here.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker of “South Park”wrote “The Book of Mormon” with Robert Lopez–book, music and lyrics. You will not remember one song. They are more like comic cotton candy. Some are very funny just because they’re outrageous upon delivery. You won’t be singing them. There are many references to “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” and Darth Vader appears on stage a few times. So does Lieutenant Uhura. “The Lion King” is mocked constantly. There’s even a “Spider Man” joke for Broadway insiders.
I will say this: while Act 1 becomes enervating, Act 2 is on the attack. Now that the set up is done–the straight laced Aryan like missionaries are loosed into the jungle–the fun can begin. Act 2 is just a rat-tat-tat series of home runs, from “Making Things Up Again” to “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” (which includes OJ Simpson and Hitler, among others), the very sly “I Believe,” and “Baptize Me” (a hilarious number in which baptism has a second, not so religious meaning). It’s also as if the writers were afraid to attack in Act 1, but figured they had a captive audience in Act 2. And what comes is not an indictment of Mormonism, but of all religion. The bark from Act 1 now has bite.
Is “The Book of Mormon” this year’s Best Musical? It’s hard to say. Few of these songs can be reproduced in a significant way without some editing. (It will be interesting to see what’s included in the Tony Awards show.) We still have “Catch Me If You,” “Baby It’s You,” “Sister Act,” and “The People in the Picture” to deal with. (“Wonderland” is a non starter from what I’m told.) The “Mormon” cast has many great surprises including Michael Potts and Nikki James, who shine in the second act. The direction is fluid. Ann Roth‘s costumes are splendid. It’s not “The Producers” or even “Spamalot,” but “The Book of Mormon” — hyping itself to death– may yet win the day.
PS There’s been no merchandise on sale for two weeks at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. No one seemed to know why. An usher told us it would be back for Friday night’s show. Some suggested T shirts came from lines in the show, like “F— God.”