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Winner of nine Tony Awards and consistently grossing in excess of $1 million a week on Broadway, The Book of Mormon stands as the juggernaut exception to George S. Kaufman’s dictum that satire is what closes Saturday night. Of course, it helps when the satire, for the most part, targets somebody other than the audience. Being of a getting-older persuasion, I was raised to consider the denigration of other people’s religion discomfiting manners at best — not entirely ameliorated by uncanny accuracy. (Then again, I was also raised to believe one of the seminal pleasures of the musical was the glory of the unamplified human voice, an even deeper index of seniordom.) On the other hand, any red-blooded rationalist would also concede that it is probably impossible to ridicule religious dogma overmuch, this week in Benghazi and Cairo notwithstanding.
Spoofing the more risible whoppers of the eponymous holy book (did you know that Scripture has a third testament, like Return of the Jedi?), the irreverent farce centers on the mandatory rite of passage for Mormon young adults to proselytize abroad on a mission to baptize the uninitiated. Upstanding overachiever Elder Price (Gavin Creel) dreams of being assigned to Orlando, which he believes represents everything he could want in this life or the next, but instead he is dispatched to darkest Uganda, afflicted by AIDS and warlords, in the company of an unlikely partner, the corpulent misfit disappointment Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner). In a reversal of fortunes, Elder Price is undone and humiliated by the challenge, while Elder Cunningham’s penchant for dissembling makes him an unlikely success at purveying salvation to a downtrodden culture. It’s enough to encourage greater appreciation for the privations of Mitt Romney‘s posting to Paris.
In matters of transgression, however, Messrs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) are masters of judicious strategy. They assume the position of relentlessly cheeky teenagers assaulting boundaries of taste, while meticulously conscious of just how far they can go without being metaphorically thrown out of the house, which is always further than the timid conventional wisdom of mass-audience economics would allow. They realize with vertiginous precision how to maintain their poise while appearing to throw decorum off balance, which allows them to indulge in — under cover of burlesquing Mormon articles of faith — what would be in most any other context outlandishly racial caricatures of vaudevillian Ugandan villagers. I’m not sure the gags often rise to the level of wit, but they are plentiful and consistently funny enough to sustain the whole scabrous enterprise.
Their secret weapon is potent stuff: far more central to the conceit than making fun of Mormons or winking with political incorrectitude, the creators realize that perhaps the only remaining valid way to credibly sock across a musical with a functional plot, show-stopping songs, elaborate dances and punchy production is to satirize the elements of hit Broadway shows of the past few generations, which it does with the same savvy and a good deal more affection than for its more exposed prey. It’s a rousing show on all counts, and above all, The Book of Mormon is unafraid to let the chorus boys be chorus boys, bless them each and every unabashed one, hoofing up a storm at regular and welcome intervals in superb crowd-pleasing choreography, eschewing acrobatics for classically honed steps. The orchestrations are inspired, both within and kidding the established idioms. While the songs may be parodies within the venerable Mad magazine tradition, the creators execute the formula skillfully, and the lyric writing, certainly naughty, has its own integrity and what passes today among arrested adolescents for sophistication.
There are take-offs on, among many others, Eddie Cantor ’20s musicals, topical ’30s musicals that just string referential jokes through the numbers, the integrated revolution of Oklahoma!, the “Cabin of Uncle Thomas” set-piece from The King and I, the paeans to the primacy of belief in oneself from the ’80s, the clichés of the power pop ballad, and so on. It’s so titillating being worked over by pros, and all departments are synchronized to the comic vision and working with impressive resources that belie that this is a national touring company mounting.
As Elder Price, Creel brandishes leading-man callowness and self-regard into many hilarious flourishes of entitlement frustrated. Gertner’s Elder Cunningham threatens in the early going to become terminally annoying, as intended, but this whitebread variation on the established crypto-Jewish nebbish character gains conviction and he convinces others. Their trajectories are predictable conventions, but executed with verve and swagger by all hands. The other leads are uniformly excellent, and the ensemble even better, which is as it should be in a show so dedicated to the smell of greasepaint.
The genuine message of The Book of Mormon is that everyone, on stage and in the audience, just have a real good time. And it may be heretical, but someday this show might just flourish in a workshop environment, too, and that’s meant as a compliment.
Venue: Pantages Theatre (through Nov. 25)
Book, Music and Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone.
Cast: Gavin Creel, Jared Gertner, Samantha Marie Ware, Grey Henson, Kevin Mambo, Mike McGowan, Derrick Williams and ensemble
Directors: Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
Choreography: Casey Nicholaw
Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements: Stephen Oremus
Dance Music Arrangements: Glen Kelly
Orchestrations by Larry Hochman & Oremus
Scenic Design: Scott Pask
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Costume Design: Ann Roth
Sound Design: Brian Ronan
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