What you’ve probably heard about The Book of Mormon is true: It’s fast, funny, and filthy. What you’ve definitely heard, time after time, about too many tours, isn’t—at least not in this case. The road show that’s pulled over at the Kennedy Center is easily the equal, and possibly the better, of the version on Broadway.
If somehow you haven’t heard about The Book of Mormon, then know this: The ninefold Tony Award winner was hatched in the fecund muck that is the shared brain of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park and suchlike. They roped in Avenue Q co-writer Robert Lopez, and together delivered to delighted Broadway audiences the most howlingly inappropriate religious satire ever to moonlight as a loving sendup of classic musicals—and then sat cheerfully back to count their monumental new piles of cash.
(Monumental? Like that shrink-wrapped spire on the Mall: The Broadway staging has played at more than 100 percent capacity every single week since its March 2011 opening, taking in somewhere in the vicinity of $183 million in ticket revenue alone. The tour, a Chicago sit-down and an open-ended West End production, not to mention sales of CDs and souvenir programs and show swag, have meanwhile been generating what presumably feels, at this point, like walking-around money for the show’s investors.)
Let us just acknowledge, before proceeding, that the easily offended need not bother. Not every Broadway spectacular has the stones to serve up the spectacle of a missionary positioned on a doctor’s exam table with a copy of the scriptures up his bum, but this is one Broadway spectacular that does. If that one doesn’t distress you, then perhaps the casual jokes about AIDS, female circumcision, and the built-in absurdity of religious mythmaking will do the trick. To put it another way, The Book of Mormon, as exemplified by its rousing Act 2 production number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” is a show by, for, and in sick celebration of those who think Mel Brooks and The Producers didn’t go quite far enough with “Springtime for Hitler.”
It’s also a show that, crucially, just works. The time Parker and Stone racked up writing South Park episodes makes itself evident in one of the tightest, most efficient books I can remember encountering in a musical; dialogue scenes whizz by, doing exactly the work required of them without wasting a second. And the songs those scenes frame manage to be deft parodies—the buoyant curtain-raiser “Hello” sends up and salutes the candy-flavored “Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie, and from there the references only get more hilarious and subversive—while doing all the character-development and story-advancing work a really first-rate musical-theater song needs to do. Cases in point: “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” and “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” both of which work twists on the obligatory “I Want” song, the former setting up co-lead Elder Price as the most casually egomaniacal Mormon in all the land, the latter establishing a nubile Ugandan villager named Nabulungi as both aware of her hometown’s shortcomings and absurdly clueless about the wider world beyond.
It’s a Mormon mission trip, of course, that brings the two into the same orbit. At the top of the show, Price (Mark Evans) is paired, to his chagrin, with Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), the friendless slacker to Price’s BMOC overachiever, and off they’re very soon shipped to Uganda. There, they’re received politely but without much interest by Nabulungi and her father, Mafala Hatimbi (Kevin Mambo), the village headman.
They and their neighbors, it will turn out, have precious little time for distractions like a novel faith; they’re busy trying to scrape along in the shadow of hunger and disease, not to mention a scourge of a local warlord played by Derrick Williams. (That this character’s name—General Butt Fucking Naked—is inspired by that of a real-world Liberian who found Jesus after a notable career involving child sacrifice is one of Book of Mormon’s bone-closest jokes.)
So the two visitors and their cohorts at the local mission outpost don’t make much progress toward their baptism quotas until Elder Cunningham, in an attempt to stop one villager from committing an especially alarming sex crime—again, one inspired by a regrettably common behavior in certain subcultures—goes six kinds of freestyle with Joseph Smith’s gold-plated gospel and its account of Christ’s teachings in the New World. Once he’s introduced Ewoks and the fires of Mordor into the Latter-day Saints’ redemption narrative, things pick up markedly.
The road cast, led by the crisp and capable Evans and the wonderfully woebe-eager O’Neill, sell the hell out of all this business, never once giving in to the temptation to wink-nudge the material. They sing their hearts out—which will be all the easier to appreciate once the sound crew adjusts to the acoustics in the Kennedy Center Opera House—and they throw themselves at Casey Nicholaw’s miraculously fluent choreography with the energy and precision you’d expect from an opening-week cast, not an ensemble that’s spent months and months on the road.
And miracle of miracles, they appear to love their jobs. If the secret to The Book of Mormon’s success is that it’s a huge-hearted wise-ass of a show, a wicked satire that’s ultimately immensely fond of its characters, one secret to this production’s success is that it doesn’t betray even a hint of we’re-trudging-the-hinterlands hauteur. This gang is out to convert audiences to a faith that says heaven can be found in the singing, dancing darkness of a first-rate musical-theater experience, and God bless ’em, they’re giving it their collective heart and soul.