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Hey, ‘Book Of Mormon’ — This All You Got?

"The Book of Mormon" cast. (Joan Marcus)

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BOSTON – This is it? This is the outrageous, transgressive, hilarious “The Book of Mormon”?

Well, gosh.

I mean, it’s cute the way they poke fun at those clean-cut, nerdy-looking missionaries with the – let’s face it – bizarre back story and the choreography is energetic and infectious, but a great piece of musical theater or a clever satire of modern mores “The Book of Mormon” is not.

Critics are as susceptible to the expectations game as much as everyone else and I suppose that I might have been more impressed had I seen it when the musical first came out. But as the myth of the show has grown, the hopes were that this was the next “Producers” or even “Avenue Q.”

If only.

First of all, let’s give “The Book of Mormon” its due. Well, first of all let’s stipulate that the Boston run at the Opera House (through April 28) is sold out except for a daily lottery of tickets. What you’re missing if you don’t have tickets is the comedy of modern missionaries in Uganda trying to bring their version of Jesus to the Africans. (The “star” missionary declares that they’re not Christians, they’re Mormons, which the Church of Latter Day Saints would strenuously deny.)

Here’s the opening number from last year’s Tony Awards with the New York cast:

You can almost fill in the rest of the story from there, particularly if you know the “South Park” work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone who together with Robert Lopez wrote the book, music and lyrics. The Mormons are all smiley faces and into a grotesque form of self-denial. The Africans are AIDS-riddled, cynical about God in any form, and have to worry about a genital-mutilating warlord who’s coming to town.

At the center of the story are Elders Price and Cunningham (neither of whom is at all elder). Price is the Donny Osmond square-jawed type who is a true believer and Cunningham the portly outcast who would rather be watching “Star Wars” than reading the real “Book of Mormon.” Mark Evans and Christopher John O’Neill are excellent as the duo, as is Samantha Marie Ware as the unlikely African love interest, Nabulungi, whose name gives rise to increasingly insipid jokes. As do all the fat-guy-as-rock-star sight gags, despite O’Neill’s talent.

But we’re in the giving-credit phase of the review so let’s forget that. The opening dance numbers of stormin’ Mormons off to change the world and, particularly, the Africans singing a “Lion King”-like happy tune are tremendous, though you can see the punchline in the latter one coming. The song is actually reflecting their contempt for a God who can stand by and watch the spread of AIDS, poverty and violence in Africa.

Mark Evans as Elder Price and Derrick Williams as the warlord. (Joan Marcus)

Mark Evans as Elder Price and Derrick Williams as the warlord. (Joan Marcus)

The creators don’t really have the courage of their lack of convictions, though, because the stage is not set for any kind of development of those themes but for a musical arc much more conventional than “The King and I.” Granted, the language would make Rogers and Hammerstein turn over in their G-rated graves, but that’s hardly anything new. As friends said at intermission, you might not want your kids singing these songs around the house, but for most theater-going adults, there’s nothing particularly offensive, or shocking, about the lyrics. (True believers of any stripe might want to stay away, though the Mormons are, to their credit, not outraged by the show. They have three full-page ads in the program.)

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m not the biggest fan of “South Park.” I appreciate Parker and Stone’s take-no-prisoners attitude toward both the left and the right and I appreciate that world view in “The Book of Mormon” as well. On the other hand the degree of difficulty in their work seems like about a four on a scale of one to ten, compared to the seven or eight on “The Simpsons.” The same is more or less true of “The Book of Mormon” compared to the previously-mentioned “Avenue Q” or “The Producers.” The lyrics are not nearly as good and the music is pretty much borrowed from other shows, sometimes as a satire of “The Lion King” or maybe even “Les Miz.”

I’m glad enough I saw the show, though if I had spent a couple of hundred bucks on the tickets, maybe not. But people have always had a soft spot for safe programming disguised as something naughty. “The Book of Mormon” doesn’t get much beyond cute and naughty – and safe.

Comments

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  • Stephen Rost

    The song is actually reflecting their contempt for a God who can stand by and watch the spread of AIDS, poverty and violence in Africa.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The balls of death of Father God do not rot off the tree – once restitution is in order — thieves which stole them can even comprehend of why they were already judged by the devil and do nothing to return them to their place of power.

    • WillAct723

      What on earth are you talking about???

    • vito33

      Huh?

  • rod

    Man, I agree! As one who was born and raised in Salt Lake City (luckily, by “apostate” parents), you’ll never convince me that the squeaky clean image of mormon missionaries, no matter how they’re portrayed, upbeat musical satire or not, isn’t in fact thin veneer that conceals something insidious. Nobody outside of the plastic dome that is “Zion” (Utah, parts of Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado) really cares about the real motives of this, the richest per capita religion on earth, but you should! Our country was damned lucky that Brother Romney lost the election, but believe it: the mormons will keep trying.

    • rod

      I’m not agreeing with you pal. I’m agreeing with Mr. Siegel.

    • Bryce Isaacson

      Hey there, Rod. I’m a Mormon in San Francisco and served as a missionary for two years. I can assure you there’s nothing insidious afoot. I just invited people to learn about Jesus. I’ve known a lot of Mormons and for the most part, they are good, charitable people.

    • rod

      FYI, I come from an old mormon pioneer family. My father, a fourth generation mormon, a brilliant pianist, who was educated at Stanford, and served on a mission in France, and my mother, a gifted portrait painter, who, btw, painted several mormon leaders, were both publicly ostracized in Salt Lake City because they didn’t follow the mormon party line to the letter. They never got over that, nor did I. I agree that individually, there are plenty of good charitable people, who also happen to be mormons, but as an organized religion, well, that’s another matter, imho, and that’s one of the main reasons I got out of there. I am now a member of the Vestry in our local Episcopal Church, and my daughter, who is graduating from the Yale Divinity School this year, agrees with me.

  • tstag

    I thoroughly enjoyed this show last night with my wife.
    I found the satire biting, and the performances by all the actors and actresses, excellent. It is a satire on All religions, or am I giving away the punchline?

    • http://twitter.com/SisterSimplice Sister Simplice

      It’s a satire on faith itself, but IMO more importantly, it’s a satire of the white savior complex and the missionary system (especially as it applies to third world countries).

  • Michael Harman

    To be fair though, Mormons are an exceptionally easy target, what with their hilarious mythologies and being the only religion that I know of to be so willing to change everything ‘sacred’ to match public opinion (I mean, they’ve given up their holy restrictions on polygamy, racism, sexual slavery, under-age brides… I guess that their god left a lot of flexibility in adhering to their holy text, lol).

    • bytebear

      I don’t know that their evolution on doctrine is any different than any other religion. Christians of the 1900s believed slavery was ordained by God. The Old Testament had a plethora of polygamists speaking with God. And there was no such thing as under age brides 150 years ago. Laura Ingles Wilder was married at 14. Not common but certainly not unheard of for the time. No, Mormons have simply adapted to the times and always have, just like every other part of American culture.

    • Chris

      Regarding racism and Mormons… you will not find a people who are less racist on the face of the earth than the Mormon people. It has always been that way. The Mormons were Abolutionists prior to the civil war. Joseph Smith taught that no man should be a slave to another. Elijah Abel was the first black man to be given the priesthood in 1836 and he became a influential leader of the church. The Mormons had settled in Missouri and because of their large number, was able to have a powerful influence on the vote whether Missouri should be a slave state or not. Mormons paid a heavy price for their anti-slavery beliefs. Mobs cast out the Mormons from their homes in Missouri during the winter. They burned their homes and beat the people. The Mormons eventually made their way to the Salt Lake Valley. It was then that the prophet Brigham Young pronounced that blacks should not receive the priesthood. Most Mormons have never understood this. For years Mormons prayed that the Lord would change this and finally in 1978, President Spencer W Kimball received a confirmation while praying in the temple that the time had come that all worthy males should receive the priesthood. This was a change in policy, not doctrine. If you read the New Testament, you’ll find that Jesus Christ commanded that the gospel should not go to the Gentiles at first, but only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. It wasn’t until after Christ’s death that Peter received the vision that the gospel should then go to both Jew and Gentile. Was Christ a racist against non-Jews? Of course not. The Lord has His timing for everything and has His reasons for doing things even though we may not understand.

  • J__o__h__n

    To their credit, despite being the homophobes behind Prop 8, the Mormons have reacted to this show well. Other religions would have resorted to beheadings or outraged letters from CJ Doyle. And Stone and Parker can look forward to a posthumous baptism.
    I saw this on Broadway and enjoyed it. It wasn’t as great as the hype but it was better than Avenue Q and the Producers (both of which I enjoyed but also didn’t live up to raised expectations). I liked the South Park movie, find the series to be hit or miss, and hated most of Team America.

    • I Miss Bush

      Funny. When the CALIFORNIANS voted, they voted FOR Prop 8. I love have how liberals throw something out there and hope it sticks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/liasynthis Erica Lewy

    I saw this on Broadway and I was thrilled to finally see a show that wasn’t a retelling of another story. How many shows have we seen that are modern versions of Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens? They’re so ingrained we’ve probably forgotten they’re not original (see West Side Story) – and I’m all for shows being “BACK! on Broadway” but you’ve got to give some credit to Matt Stone and Trey Parker for having original ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the performance.

    • J__o__h__n

      or worse, a movie.

  • commonsense120

    What show were you watching? This was one of the most perfect pieces of theater in recent memory. It’s less “safe” than a story about heeding the message while ignoring the message. What is wrong with a musical that is hopeful and uplifting? Is it not allowed to be because it has strong language in it?

    It seems almost impossible that you and I saw the same show.

  • vito33

    Dear Ed,
    When you hear a joke, do you stop and try to explain to everybody the joke’s construction, syntax, rhythm and the effectiveness of hyperbole and tension?
    I bet you’re a lot of fun at parties!

  • http://twitter.com/SisterSimplice Sister Simplice

    The “Elder” thing is an odd statement if presented as a complaint about the show (as it appears you’ve done); it’s a standard LDS title for male missionaries.

  • Sarah Morison

    I saw this last year on Broadway and was very underwhelmed. It was also a cast with basically no women, which I found irritating.

  • http://www.facebook.com/emily.johnson.7315720 Emily Johnson

    The LDS Church leaders may have taken the high road, but there are plenty of us members who find the musical very offensive. Where are the musicals mocking the Quran or the Torah?

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.bitton.3 Joel Bitton

    You have got to be kidding, maybe you were just offended by the irreverence to religion but this was one of the most fun evening I’ve had in a long time.