It's not often you see religious satire and profanity in a Broadway musical. Then again, The Book of Mormon is unique: It's a robust, toe-tapping musical that foments laughter and thoughtfulness in equal measure.
Now at the Eugene O'Neill, the brainchild of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez tackles the wackier aspects of the Mormon Church, even as it exalts in the good cheer and hope that belief can provide. That's a tricky line to walk, both in story and execution, especially when the humor is liberally borrowed from the South Park playbook, which specializes in schoolboy, in-your-face send-ups of sacred cows.
But that's what makes this show such a singular treat: The Book of Mormon confronts sin and redemption, proving that comedy is an effective teaching tool.
The Book of Mormon, which features two fantastic leads, the clean-cut, all-American egoist Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and the sweet-but-goofy slob Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) transports two 19-year-old missionaries from Salt Lake City to a 21st-century Ugandan village. That's right, Uganda, home to warlords, AIDS and despair. Welcome to a buddy film run riot.
The villagers, led by the lovely Nabulungi (Nikki M. James), proclaim their hatred of God in a song so rude, it's wonderful. Conversely, the Mormon missionaries, whose faith is sorely tested, are bursting with evangelical fervor. Led by Elder McKinley (a terrific Rory O'Malley), they want to spread the word, even if the tale of church founder Joseph Smith and his encounters with the angel Moroni sound nutty. It may be easy to spoof the Mormons, but all religions tell stories that strain credulity. That's the writers' point. Theology only works if it inspires us to be our best, most-caring selves.
Directed by Casey Nicholaw of The Drowsy Chaperone fame, and Parker, with super-entertaining choreography by Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon is a salute to old-fashioned musicals; it zealously embraces the art form.
In fact, Mormon's songs -- and solid book -- pack punch. Both are equal-opportunity zingers -- religion, celebrity and Western naivete are lampooned with glee. (The song "I Am Africa" is a glorious dig at Bono, et. al., whose approach to Africa is more Lion King, less reality.) The Mormons are searching for paradise in the next world; turns out, it's on Broadway.