If you’re shopping for a devastating satirical assault on the Mormon religion, the loud and flashy show now at the Civic Theatre, The Book of Mormon, is not it.
True, this award-winning bacchanal of dark and naughty fantasies, snarky potty humor and truckloads of foul language, knee-deep in cynical sniggering and far beyond innuendo, leaves classical Mormonism in shambles.
But, just as the show’s creators – Trey Parker and Matt Stone, originator of television’s “South Park,” and Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q” – have reduced the religion to a shuddering mess on the floor, they pull back. Stop short. And, for the final curtain, a whole village-worth of downtrodden Africans suddenly seems converted and ready to troop forth themselves, ringing doorbells and pushing their extensively customized version of the church’s teachings.
So the show’s message is: “Believe hard enough and everything will work out”? Standard operetta romanticism, but far from blades of satire.
There’s not much in The Book of Mormon – the original text or this musical comedy based on it – that would pass a reality scan. As creation myths go, though, the Mormon tale isn’t that much weirder than any other religion. It’s the way they push it that gets so much attention. And it’s the self-important, holier-than-thou strut that makes Mormons such a tempting target for anybody who cares.
If the discussion is reality, though, the reality is that this cleverly conceived show is just about the nastiest attack on an organized religion possible for a hit Broadway musical. Even with punches pulled, pomposity has been punctured and human nature shown as a force more potent than any arbitrary belief system draped over it.
From the opening fanfare to the final anguished shout, the show shoves splinters of mischief into the cracks of solemn beliefs.
It all starts with a brief historical pageant involving God, Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni, Jesus Christ and those notorious golden plates. Then, amidst the piles of sterile architecture so beloved by the religion, Mormon boys in their uniforms of white short-sleeve shirt with black ties and pants are lined up for a formal assignment of where they’ll be spending two years chasing converts. They act like a convention of high school sissies as they sing their fight song for the battle against worldly temptations.
(There’s an odd glaze of gay yearning throughout the show but it’s never really followed up. For that matter, sex of any sort is left generally abstract; Too much danger of getting serious, perhaps.)
The most stalwart 18-year-old of all, played with squeaky-clean-cut glide for this national touring troupe by David Larsen, is assigned not to Orlando, where Disney fantasies call to him, but instead to Uganda. And he’s paired with the group’s dud, a dreamy fat boy played with shameless self-loathing by Cody Jamison Strand.
Within moments of their arrival in the jungle, local thugs have stolen their luggage. But the impoverished villagers advise them just to shrug and join in a song for the local deity, built on a phrase, they find later that translates as “Fuck You, God”.
It really is a miserable village. Nothing much to eat, lots of AIDS and the local warlord who has decided that all girls must be circumcised, since the clitoris just leads to trouble. Not even the clean-cut charms of the most charismatic Mormon are going to make a dent here, obviously.
Until, that is, the fat boy is left in charge one day. He already has admitted that he’s never even read the Book of Mormon (“too boring”) but his active imagination knows how it should go. So, by judicious borrowing from “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Trek,” he coaxes the crowd back into attention and turns the tide.
Inspired by his partner’s unlikely success, the Best Boy resolves to go even a step further and recruit to warlord himself, played with major menace by David Aron Dumane. That result is less productive but perhaps more awesome, involving the removal of an entire book from an anal canal.
Failure drives the hero to a binge of self-disgust at the coffee bar and inflicts upon him the show’s major excess, the “Scary Mormon Hell Dream.” In addition to platoons of devils and demons, there are Darth Vader, Lieutenant Uhura, dwarves with swords, dancing Starbucks cups and a featured quartet I took to be Hitler, Genghis Khan, Johnny Cochran and Jeffrey Dahmer. Satan himself is on lead guitar. Christ has a cameo and Yoda ends the misery. Rarely have so many costumes been changed so swiftly.
Tallia Brinson, announced as a replacement in the role of the principal village maiden, did a polished and sincere job of pushing the Girl-Gets-God plot, though there was little chemistry between her and the fat kid, in the modest romantic subplot.
What’s that about plot? Nothing much to see here. The show’s about having fun dumping on religion without casing a riot. It’s also about the astonishing, innovative scenery of Scott Pask; the endless stream of colorful, effective and easily doffed costumes by Ann Roth; and the shameless electronic bullying of Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design, always with a gadget or a trick as outlandish as the rest of the show.
No breakthroughs in choreography or staging were achieved by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, who staged this thing in what possibly was a hot flush of competitive bad taste and ingenious use of forces. (Only 22 actors? Hard to believe.) There’s a bold swagger throughout that implies any audience not buying in will be considered hopelessly square. And the stock characters all are reinforced to premium effect.
No list of songs was provided in the crowded and outdated program but that’s not a big concern. Such information is readily available on the Internet and, besides, the songs are mostly just utilitarian, as are the efficient Larry Hochman-Stephen Oremus-Glen Kelly arrangements.
So, both the Mormon church and the Broadway theatre seem likely to survive this collision. Final proof may come next year, when this company plays Salt Lake City.