The Book of Mormon, the first Broadway outing for South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (collaborating with co-writer/composer Robert Lopez (Avenue Q)), is the funniest and most heartfelt show I have seen on Broadway. It tells the story of Elder Price (Andre Rannells), a new Mormon missionary viewed as the golden child of his community. All the other Elders wish they could be like him. They group of young missionaries is paired up and shipped off to various foreign countries. Elder Price is partnered with Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), a misfit and compulsive liar, on a mission to Uganda. After a fond farewell at the airport, the boys wind up in Uganda, where they are promptly robbed by a warlord, taught how the locals feel about religion, and confronted with the AIDS epidemic first hand. The first thing to note about this show is the old-fashioned scenic design. Designer Scott Pask has turned the proscenium arch of the Eugene O'Neill Theater into a Mormon Tabernacle, complete with flashing stained-glass and rotating golden statue. The walls of the theater are painted to look like the Mormon vision of heaven--a series of planets where everyone has their own space. The onstage set uses a series of beautifully-painted fabric backdrops (with many sight-gags) and a mostly static set moved around by the actual cast. It's refreshing in its simplicity and works wonders to represent the poor conditions of the Ugandan village where nothing comes free or easy.
The draw of the show is the high-energy song and dance numbers. After a brief introduction to the history of Mormonism (told by God-like voice over with live pantomime), the young missionaries enter the stage one by one, simulating the door-to-door proselytizing method of Mormons with a catchy a cappella melody and visually striking choreography. Elder Price gets a sweeping so-serious-it's-comedic ballad about his dream mission before the Elders perform a complicated vaudeville-style number about their partnerships and destinations.
When the show transitions Uganda, the music changes. It becomes a mix of African-tinged songs (think Lion King by way of the harsher world view of Fela!), complete with traditional African dance, vibrant-colored (but ratty looking) costumes, and realistic accents. From raucous tap numbers to one of the most ridiculous and inventive dream sequences ever-conceived, The Book of Mormon is a treasure trove of memorable stage sequences.
The cast is more than game in presenting a book that crosses many social taboos. I believed it when the villagers proclaimed their religious philosophy while I sat in my chair horrified that I was laughing at such a sacrilegious number. Aside from faith in general (rather than Mormonism itself), the book deals with female genital mutilation, AIDS, rape, war, murder, addiction, homosexuality, poverty, and--yes--theatricality. One tap number is all about repressing homosexual urges. Another song is all about taking pride in lying if it helps other people. The cast sells everything with energy and believable presentations of absurd humor. Their voices soar to the rafters of the tabernacle and many of the songs lead to spontaneous applause and uncontrollable laughter before they're finished. Most shows get one showstopper; this has at least seven.
While Act I is funny, it does take a bit too long for the actual narrative to kick in. Yes, technically, the journey from Utah to Uganda is part of the story. The problem is the driving narrative force lies in convincing the villagers to listen to the Book of Mormon. This doesn't really start until halfway through Act I and doesn't raise any stakes beyond pride until the last fifteen minutes. Act II does a much better job of balancing narrative and humor. The creative team, unfortunately, put themselves in the awkward position of having a longer second act, meaning any cuts to Act I to improve the pace would have made the show feel even longer in Act II. As it stands, the balance between the acts is great, even if the story is slow to develop.
I believe there is an easy way to describe how this show works. There is a scene in Act II where the villagers act out The Book of Mormon with horrifying changes. It is a visual and narrative reference to the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" in The King and I, but also takes its musical cues from the previous tenant of the Eugene O'Neill Theater: Fela!. There are parts of this song that almost sound like they wrote new lyrics for the arrangements lifted straight from the other show. The actors onstage that aren't participating in the play are reacting the same way as the audience--shock, horror, and laughter. The content of the song is more vulgar and absurd than anything else that happens in the play. The characters in the play within the play think they're doing a faithful and appropriate reenactment of The Book of Mormon, which turns out to be anything but. This musical consistently tips its hat to many other musicals while commenting on the form of theatrical entertainment and doing so with catchy lyrics, vibrant dancing, and offensive absurdist humor.
There's a reason people are snapping up whatever tickets they can to see The Book of Mormon: it's superb. It's funny, it's heartfelt, it's memorable, and it's performed with such passion and energy that even the most hardened cynic would find something to enjoy in it. Forget about the other new, high-budget musicals of the season. If you want to see one of the best traditional-style musical comedies ever conceived, go see The Book of Mormon.