Saturday, May 28, 2011

THE BOOK OF MORMON • Eugene O'Neill Theatre

Okay, so there are gonna be some naughty words in here.

Nominated for about a dozen Tonys, this is one of those shows that I felt like I just had to check out.  Thank goodness I got a ticket before the Tony nominations came out.  Probably saved a few bucks. ( -- some sweet savings here…)  Created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, best known for their animated series "South Park", this show follows two Mormon Elders and their missionary trip to Uganda.

At intermission a couple of incredibly well preserved New Yorkers behind me complained about the irreverence of this show.  Seriously?  You're seeing a musical comedy written by the "South Park" guys called THE BOOK OF MORMON.  With songs like "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream", "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (that translates into something that I don't even want to jot down here), and a dictator called "Butt-fucking naked" (I'm not kidding), if you don't know what you're getting into when you walk in, you're in for a night of unashamed blasphemy.  If you're up for it, you're gonna see a very entertaining musical.

Rema Webb, Andrew Rannels, and Josh Gad
Photo by Joan Marcus
The show starts with what I like to call a "doorbell fugue" titled, "Hello".  It pokes fun at the familiar scenario of a Mormon (or various other religious factions for that matter) ringing your doorbell and offering you a chance to go straight to heaven -- if only you'll read this free book.  Did you know that Jesus lived here in the USA?  It'll change your life.  Honestly!  No?  Okay, have fun in hell then!

The Elders are getting paired up for their two year assignments where they will "spread the word".  Will it be Norway, France or Japan?  No.  Our two Elders, Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) get Uganda!  Yay?  No.  In a country like Uganda, where there's female circumcision, AIDS, gang wars and a running joke about a guy with maggots in his scrotum, these two white boys are in for some shit.  Needless to say, this wacky set-up provides the musical's jumping off point, complete with a LION KING styled welcoming (there's a fair amount of pastiche during the show).  Elder Price is an ambitious young Mormon who is determined to make a difference and stand out in the Army of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter Day Saints).  His mission companion, Elder Cunningham is a joyful misfit with a penchant for lying.  When our Elders arrive, they find themselves quite out of their depth, and learn that the village lives in fear of a local warlord, whose name I said earlier, and don't care to mention again…  

Nikki M. James, Andrew Rannells, Josh Gad
and MORMON Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The challenges seem insurmountable to Price, who abandons the mission, and pays for this sin by reflecting on his past transgressions in a number I really enjoyed called, "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream".  Ingrained guilt is a bitch.  Cunningham is left to man up and convince these Ugandans to buy in to the Mormon religion and agree to be baptized, or the mission will fail.  Cunningham doesn't really fully understand much of the Mormon doctrine, so he fills in the blanks with a little science fiction and some of his made-up stories.  In the end though, he does convince the villagers to become baptized.  When the Mission President comes to check on their progress and congratulate them on their accomplishments, the locals present a pageant of all that they have learned from Elder Cunningham.  Uh oh.  The Mission President is appalled, and although the Elders are sent packing, Price and Cunningham learn that the villagers understand that most religions are more metaphor that literal truth anyway.  Granted, things are tied up in relatively predictable ways.  For such an irreverent musical though, it follows traditional musical conventions pretty closely.  Is it still a fun ride?  I thought so. 

Josh Gad, Nikki M. James and Andrew Rannells
Photo by Joan Marcus
The sets by Scott Pask and costumes by Ann Roth are bright and colorful, and the big production numbers executed by this  tight ensemble pack a punch.  Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad perfectly embody that "buddy flick" dynamic and Nikki M. James as Nabulungi, (Elder Cunningham's love interest), gives a sincere performance with no winking, and has a beautiful voice.

Sometimes the vulgarity of the humor was a little much for even me (and that's saying a lot).  For this reason, I can't really see this puppy touring -- in St. Louis anyway, but it's something new that people are attracted to right now and apparently, the Tony nominators are eating it up too, so who knows?  Even though I really wanted to see this, I was skeptical about whether or not I would like it.  I like edgy, but I usually don't go in for blatantly making fun of someone's religious beliefs.  But when you think about the doctrines of practically all of the religions, there's typically a little absurdity in there somewhere.  This show just puts the doctrines of the Mormon faith under a microscope.  And then sets it all to music.  Everyone wants to laugh at something we have been told to have great reverence for sometimes, right?  If you're in the Big Apple, check it out.  Jesus will forgive you.

I'm sorry -- I can't resist.  Here's "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream".  I'm oddly addicted to it at the moment…


Book/music/lyrics by Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th St. New York, NY
open run | tickets: $69 - $142
Performances Tuesday to Thursday 7pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Wednesdays & Saturdays at 2pm, Sundays at 3pm

Josh Gad (Elder Cunningham), Andrew Rannells (Elder Price), Nikki M. James (Nabulungi), Rory O’Malley (Moroni), Brian Tyree Henry (General) and Michael Potts (Mafala Hatimbi).

Scenic Design by Scott Pask; costume design by Ann Roth; lighting design by Brian MacDevitt; sound design by Brian Ronan; hair design by Josh Marquette.

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