That Broadway might have found its salvation in a religious satire written by some of the raunchiest theater creators of the past 15 years is ironic. But for all the sly winks and outright punches thrown, The Book of Mormon — written by Robert Lopez of Avenue Q and Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park — has a big ol' surprisingly squishy heart.
The plot is simple. Two young, odd-couple elders in the Church of Latter Day Saints are assigned to a village in Uganda for their two-year mission. Once they arrive, they're faced with people more concerned with how to be saved, literally, from a vicious warlord, AIDS, and poverty than how to be saved, figuratively, by Christ.
If you've ever watched South Park, you know Parker and Stone's routine: take the most outrageously self-satisfied, outlandish, preposterous cultural happenings and say what everybody else is only thinking. One episode, “Smug Alert!,” poked fun at the “progressive” attitude of San Franciscans by having them stop mid-conversation to fart, lean down and inhale deeply. In another, they take down Puff Daddy's “Vote or Die” campaign by having the rap mogul actually pull a gun and shoot people.
It's safe to say, then, that we had very particular expectations walking into the West Coast premiere of The Book of Mormon Wednesday night. Paired with Lopez (see the brilliant song “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” from Avenue Q), would there be any soft underbelly of religion left un-stabbed, any guts left un-flung all over the stage?
Of course the show is funny. The opening number, “Hello,” has the elders practicing their spiels in the tradition of doggedly going door-to-door. One bursts out brightly, “Did you know that Jesus lived here in the USA,” while another rings a doorbell over and over, referencing the joke of people hiding in their houses from the very persistent Mormons. When elders Price (the spot-on Gavin Creel, who shakes and slides with the same jerky, loose-limbed moves of a young Martin Short) and Cunningham (the lovable Jared Gertner, who's going to have to fight Zach Galifianakis comparisons) find out they're being sent to Africa in the standout number “Two By Two,” one exclaims, “Like Lion King!”
In fact, the writing team has tucked in so many off-the-cuff, hilariously accurate references, the musical feels like a really good Easter egg hunt — you'll still be finding eggs a year later. The same applies to choreographer and co-director (with Parker) Casey Nicholaw's razor-sharp dance sequences; you could watch them over and over and continue to pick up on subtle tricks. Highlights include the “Thriller” sequence in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and the clap on/clap off in sparkling tap number “Turn It Off.” The latter features Grey Henson, playing the chipper, closeted, de facto leader of the Mormon compound in Uganda — his future is blindingly bright.
But Parker and Stone have proven time and time again they know black humor and biting satire and even how to write a damn good song. What's more impressive is how they have dug deeper and gotten to the root of our struggle with religion. The age-old question of “why do bad things happen to good people?,” practical applications of the very unpractical notion of faith, fear of loneliness, not living up to expectations of a perfect God and, well, a fiery hell as your eternity — the show addresses these issues, but instead of relying on snarky chortles and eye rolls, the laughter is gentler, tinged with empathy. They know which buttons to push, but underlying all the ribbing is a tenderness that prevents the show from being bitter and angry.
So, sure, they might occasionally want to tell God to fuck off — and hey, haven't we all? — but the care they've taken with The Book of Mormon gives them away. The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference.