While serving a mission (years ago) for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I learned to do pretty much everything in a white shirt, tie, and nametag, whether it was changing a bike tire or running from Dobermans. Seeing that same outfit worn by everyone in a line dance, though, came as something of a jolt the other night. Oddball incongruities are the forté of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who deliver them with swift, taboo-defying punches in The Book of Mormon, their musical collaboration with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez. The effect is often uncomplicatedly hilarious, and the story is occasionally moving. It is just as often absurdly, if not surprisingly, crass. And as an affirmative commentary on faith in general and Mormonism in particular, it is a bit out of its depth and compromised by its own simplistic digs.
The protagonists are two Mormon missionaries, each referred to by the title of “Elder.” Elder Price (Andrew Rannells, excellent) is ambitious and self-absorbed; Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad, superb) is awkward and in awe of Elder Price (“I am so stoked that you and I got put together . . . all my friends end up leaving me, but you can’t!”). Assigned as a “companionship,” the two are whisked to Uganda by the rising of a serene Utah backdrop that reveals a donkey carcass being dragged through a ramshackle village. Afflicted by AIDS, warlord-inflicted atrocities, and uncomfortably lodged maggots, the villagers are pointedly reluctant to trust in the Almighty. Indeed, the point-blank shooting of a local leads Elder Price to go AWOL and question his own faith. But after the village leader’s daughter (played with winning sincerity by Nikki M. James) has a vision of Salt Lake City (“most marvelous place on earth / flies don’t bite your eyeballs / and human lives have worth”), she persuades an abandoned Elder Cunningham to have another go at teaching her people. Panicking as his audience’s attention wanes, and as someone from the crowd declares his intent to “go rape a baby” (a folkloric cure for AIDS), Elder Cunningham begins to invent stories wholecloth. The embellishments result in twenty converts for him and his fellow missionaries, a collision course with church leadership, and eventual reconciliation with a humbled Elder Price.
Stand-alone jokes (often scatological) abound in Book of Mormon, but the piece succeeds in being character–driven, and its best laughs come from the two leads being true to their characters’ quirks. After being assigned to his less-handsome, less-adept colleague, Elder Price launches into “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” a song about the greatness to which he is destined. Rannells delivers the song with blissful self-satisfaction and polish as Josh Gad looks on ecstatically. Gad later treats the audience to what may be the funniest semblance of a panic attack I have ever seen. Approaching a dilapidated house with his colleague, his slow-to-adapt character searches in vain for something he can ring. “There’s . . . no . . . doorbell . . .” he stage-gasps, needing a breath between each word before reeling with dry heaves.
Less endearing are numbers like “Baptize Me,” a tortured effort to wring innuendo out of a simple holy rite. The song is typical of the creative team’s approach to religious content, which is where the show founders in its ambitions. In interviews, non-believers Parker/Stone/Lopez have emphasized their empathy for religion. Their ultimate intent with Book of Mormon, they say, is to look at how “goofy stories” (i.e., those supposedly found in the actual Book of Mormon) can inspire people for the better. Indeed, it is remarked without irony at one point how the villagers have become “happy and hopeful” through their conversion; and the phrase “Thank you, God” is sung at the end as a contrast to a much earlier song that levels an expletive at the Almighty. What is left unclear is how Elder Cunningham’s bizarrely bowdlerized tales have led to this outcome. Or how any of the original stories or teachings, touched on in gently mocking tableaus, might be possessed of anything inspirational. Far more time is spent on camped-up numbers such as “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” a dream we’re told that all Mormon missionaries have (Really?). Not that I didn’t enjoy seeing Elder Price pursued by two giant cups of coffee (counseled against in the Church as habit-forming). And yes, this is a comedy, not a theological treatise. But is there truly nothing of substance in the actual Book of Mormon? Having read the book quite a few times (for the reason that there is more of substance than can possibly be absorbed in a few sittings), I’m fairly confident the creators didn’t look very hard. Do they want to make the superficial observation that Mormons may believe in wacky stuff, but we shouldn’t ostracize them because they’re nice people? OK, thanks for the pat on the head. The warm and happy ending still lacks a persuasive impetus, and is unearned. Even by the standards of a Broadway confection, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to ask a bit more.