Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to be mellowing with age, which is not something you could say about many artists whose recent work contains the lyrics “F*ck you, God, in the *ss, muthac*nta.” Still, The Book of Mormon, the Tony-sweeping, record-smashing, universally adored musical from the creative forces behind South Park, has a nostalgic, almost Disney-like charm compared with the rest of their oeuvre. (Google “Virgin Mary South Park” and you’ll see what I mean.)
Whether The Book of Mormon—playing at the Kennedy Center through August 18—is a sign of Parker and Stone maturing or of the pair attempting to create something broadly palatable to middle America is hard to discern, but despite its repeated jokes about AIDS, infant rape, female circumcision, and homophobia, the show has a sweetness about it that makes it an unlikely paean to the format of musical theater. Mormons have always gotten off relatively lightly in Stone/Parker-land—compared with, say, Scientologists—and the defining message of The Book of Mormon seems to be similarly rosy. Who cares what crazy stories people believe in if they’re ultimately trying to make the world a better place?
If you’re a gay Californian whose marriage was delegitimized by the passing of Prop 8 (which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was fundamental in fundraising and campaigning for), you might have a different opinion, but that’s beside the point. The two heroes of The Book of Mormon are a swarthy, narcissistically all-American missionary named Elder Price (Mark Evans), whose zeal has more than a shade of Johnny Bravo to it, and Price’s assigned partner, Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill), who’s as nerdy, messy, and awkward as Price is clean-cut and handsome. In terms of format, it’s as rote as comedic pairings come.
Despite Price believing God will reward his faith by sending him to that sunny paradise on Earth, Orlando, he and Cunningham are instead shipped off to Uganda, where animal carcasses rot on the streets, almost everyone has AIDS, and an evil warlord (Derrick Williams) is intent on circumcising every woman in the village. The missionaries who welcome them have had little success with converting the villagers, but they have developed an effective way to combat doubt and self-awareness, detailed in the cheery, chirpy number “Turn It Off.” Childhood pain? Turn it off. Unexpressed grief for a dead sibling? Never happened. Less-than-wholesome thoughts about a handsome friend named Steve? Easily stifled by prayer and positive thinking.
Evans’s Price is effortlessly charismatic, and so sunny in his naive egotism that it’s hard to dislike him. In the show’s third number, “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” he and Cunningham spell out the terms of their relationship, which features Price as the star and Cunningham as the bumbling sidekick who tries as hard as he can not to get in the way. But when the two are transported to Africa, where the local way of dealing with hardship is cursing God in an extremely funny ripoff of “Hakuna Matata,” it’s Cunningham who finally finds a way to connect with his new community.
The Book of Mormon is the collaborative effort of Parker, Stone, and Robert Lopez, best-known as the co-creator of Avenue Q. Strike me down for saying so, but it’s hard not to wish Parker and Stone had paired with Marc Shaiman instead, whose work on South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut scored an Oscar nomination. I’d posit that there isn’t a single song in The Book of Mormon as catchy as “Blame Canada” or “What Would Brian Boitano Do,” or even “Uncle F*cka” (if you disagree, please specify which one you left the auditorium humming). “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is infectious but has a steel drum riff that’s copied almost directly from Disney, and there are a number of songs (“All American Prophet,” “I Believe,” “I Am Here For You”) that are yawningly forgettable.
What The Book of Mormon benefits hugely from is Scott Pask’s sets, particularly in the number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” (which borrows generously from the scene in South Park the movie when Kenny descends into hell and encounters Hitler, George Burns, and, weirdly, Gandhi). Mormon hell is a red, gaping chasm of awfulness populated by Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochran. Salt Lake City is a lovely painted backdrop of a shining church on a hill surrounded by strip malls and fast food outlets. Uganda, meanwhile, seems to be constructed entirely from gray bones and trash, although the flashing stained-glass proscenium arch above the stage that blinks throughout the musical numbers is a nicely Vegas-esque reference to megachurches.
There are plenty of belly laughs, particularly when Cunningham reinterprets the stories in the Book of Mormon to make them more interesting to a contemporary audience. But there are also gags staler than last week’s bagels, like the running joke in which Cunningham gets the gorgeous Nabalungi’s (Samantha Marie Ware) name wrong, referring to her variously as “Neosporin,” “Neutrogena,” and “Nicoderm CQ.” Ware performs her big numbers with flair and a golden set of lungs, but even she, rhapsodizing over an imagined Utah-based paradise in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” can’t make the line “where flies don’t bite your eyeballs and human life has worth,” sound anything less than hoary.
As Cunningham, O’Neill is gregarious and funny, particularly in his physicality (he’s rotund and diminutive but a very enthusiastic dancer, and his repeated attempts to hug Elder Price are sheer slapstick). He can go a touch off-key, however, particularly in “Baptize Me,” in which he and Nabalungi perform a conversion-based seduction dance that’s roughly equivalent to “Let’s Get It On.” It’s the kind of gentle blasphemy The Book of Mormon excels at—offensive enough to thrill Broadway’s common denominator but not really any rougher than a good old-fashioned knock-knock joke. (“Who’s there?” “Joseph Smith with an unfortunate case of dysentery.”)
The show’s real message—that religion is meant to be allegorical, and we’re idiots for thinking otherwise—is so subtle that it almost gets lost among the jubilation of hobbits and Brigham Youngs and Yodas dancing gleefully together onstage. But maybe that’s just the Great White Way.
The Book of Mormon is at the Kennedy Center through August 18. Running time is about two and a half hours, including one intermission. A few tickets (prices vary) are still available via the Kennedy Center’s website.