‘The Book of Mormon’

 Joan Marcus

Anyone who saw South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Trey Parker and Matt Stone genuinely appear to love musicals even as they subvert them. What’s perhaps less expected is that while The Book of Mormon packs in plenty of blissful profanity, sacrilege and politically incorrect mischief, the defining quality of this hugely entertaining show is its sweetness. Teaming with Robert Lopez, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for Avenue Q, Parker and Stone have created one of the freshest original musicals in recent memory. It has tuneful songs, clever lyrics, winning characters, explosive laughs and disarmingly intimate moments. Religious zealots are not going to roll up, but the show has a comic field day with Mormonism while simultaneously acknowledging — maybe even respecting — the right of everyone to follow any faith they choose. Or invent.

Co-directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw — who also did the choreography — the show’s delightful contradictions extend to its craftsmanship. It manages to mock and celebrate musical-theater conventions in staging that is both tongue-in-cheek cheesy and polished, with storytelling that is blunt yet sly as a fox.

In terms of construction and song placement, Mormon masters a classic formula. Starting with a chipper opening number that instantly secures audience affection for its two lead characters, the show checks off every required song function of a good musical. There are efficient nuggets of sung exposition; yearning “I want” declarations; comedy numbers that provide plot momentum; songs in which characters share their dreams, seize a challenge or face a conflict; celebratory anthems; and, of course, an emotionally emphatic 11 o’clock number.

The song everybody will be talking about is “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a wicked spin on The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata,” in which Ugandan villagers invoke a favorite catchphrase to dispel the woes of poverty, AIDS, guerrilla warfare and enforced female circumcision. Translation would spoil the joke, but let’s just say it ain’t “No worries for the rest of your days.”

Fresh out of training, preppy golden boy Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and schlubby class doofus Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) are sent to Uganda on their first missionary assignment. For Elder Cunningham, it’s a chance to have a friend who can’t dump him; for Elder Price, it’s the start of a crisis of faith when his dreams of being sent to Orlando are crushed.

Price’s meltdown puts Cunningham in charge of securing baptism candidates where the other on-site Mormons have failed. But Cunningham hasn’t even read the Book of Mormon. “It’s so boring,” he confesses. Indulging his propensity to tell lies, he draws on The Matrix, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and his geek imagination to instruct the villagers.

The result is a lurid revisionist pageant that reinterprets Mormon history in the style of an African folktale. That bastardized version, titled “Joseph Smith American Moses,” is among the most riotous musical interludes. It departs radically from the official account and is is performed like an Osmond TV special.

Number after number hits a bull’s-eye. “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is a satanic nightmare featuring cameos by Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnnie Cochran. “I Am Africa,” sung by squeaky-clean Wonder Bread Mormons (including Cunningham channeling Bono), is a killer riff on patronizing “We Are the World”-style humanitarianism. “Baptize Me” gleefully sexualizes the religious rite.

Led by Elder McKinley (Rory O’Malley), who is determined to quash those pesky homosexual urges, “Turn It Off” is a peppy call to suppress disturbing true feelings — replete with full-blown tap routine. And in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” the gorgeous-voiced Nikki M. James (as Cunningham’s Ugandan quasi-love interest) contemplates paradise in Utah as a soaring daydream right out of The Little Mermaid.

The cast is terrific, and Gad and Rannells make a dynamite pair, exchanging leader and follower roles with equal conviction. Gad (a correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart) may be giving the single funniest, most endearing performance on Broadway. But Rannells is not far behind, his character’s righteousness at war with his inflated ego.

The designers merit loud applause. Framed by a proscenium that conjures the Mormon Tabernacle, Scott Pask’s sets make droll use of old-fashioned backcloths and painted flats, particularly in the hilariously vivid village. Costumes by Ann Roth are full of witty touches, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is equally descriptive in hellfire and celestial modes.

In choosing Lopez and Nicholaw as key collaborators, Broadway neophytes Parker and Stone have shown enormous savvy. The result is a show that’s slick where it needs to be while retaining the rough-and-ready quality that put the South Park duo on the pop-cultural map. What makes the musical irresistible, however, is its panache in making naughty mockery of a whole string of untouchable subjects, without an ounce of spite.

Venue Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast Josh Gad, Andrew Rannells, Nikki M. James, Rory O’Malley, Michael Potts
Book-music-lyrics Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone

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