Satire pulls no punches in its social commentary, but leaves room for sentiment
“The Book of Mormon” is lewd, rude, crude, politically incorrect, whip smart, and damn funny. What else would you expect from Matt Stone and Trey Parker (the creators of South Park) and Robert Lopez (the composer and lyricist of “Avenue Q”)? Their cheeky 2011 creation has finally returned to the Van Wezel, where it played to packed houses in 2016. It was worth the wait.
The musical starts off by lovingly bashing the Mormon religion — and by extension all religions. This unfolds in a Broadway musical-style dramatization of the religion’s origin story. When acted out, it resembles the elaborations of a bad liar.
This doctrine is delivered in the final training session for young Mormon missionaries. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sends its young men out on a two-year mission to make converts — and it’s what they need to know.) You see a pack of neophytes on stage — all male, all white, and nearly identical in white shirts, black ties and black pants. It’s hard to tell the lads apart. Helpfully, they all wear name tags. Now that they’ve finished their training, they’re ready to share the good news with the world. Where in the world? They’re about to find out.
The musical zeroes in on two of the Mormon missionaries. Elder Kevin Price (Liam Tobin) is ambitious, good-looking, egomaniacal, and could recite the LDS doctrine in his sleep. Elder Arnold Cunningham (Jordan Matthew Brown) is nerdy, scruffy, and fond of spinning tall tales; he also hasn’t actually read “The Book of Mormon.” Their peers get sent to Paris, Japan and other lovely places. The card they’re dealt is a village in Uganda.
Sounds bad. Once they arrive, it’s worse. The LDS missionaries on the scene have racked up exactly zero baptisms and spend most of the time huddled safely inside the compound. Kevin and Arnold go forth and find out why. The village is a hellhole of AIDS, parasites, poverty, diarrhea, dysentery and the casual killings of a warlord on a psychopathic crusade to impose female genital mutilation. When the eager missionaries try to make converts, the villagers sing a happy song called “Hasa Diga Eebowai” — an obvious parody of “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King.” Arnold and Kevin sing along — until they discover it’s an unprintable insult to an indifferent God. The villagers aren’t buying what Arnold and Kevin are selling. What the hell can the Book of Mormon possibly do for them?
Later on, Arnold puts his jive-talking superpowers to work and wins converts with a bogus “Book of Mormon” he improvises on the spot. Like any good standup comic, Arnold shapes his routine with audience feedback — and gives the people what they want. These villagers want hope. Arnold’s ridiculous, R-rated stories give it to them. His love interest, Nabulungi (Alyah Chanelle Scott), loses heart when she finds out it’s a confabulation. Her friends mock her, “It’s a metaphor, stupid! You don’t seriously think Salt Lake City is real?”
This musical’s packed with that kind of smart writing. And dirty jokes involving every orifice. And a raspberry at organized (and disorganized) religion. And a dope-slap to white people’s sentimental dreams of Africa. That’s no surprise to fans of “South Park” or “Team America: World Police.” After all, Stone and Parker broke into the animation biz with a cartoon short pitting Jesus against Santa. Lopez taught puppets to talk dirty. Is nothing sacred? Obviously not. If you’re easily offended, you will be. If you’re not-so-easily offended, you will be. You have been warned.
That said, Parker and Stone scorn yes-and-no polarities in their stories. When told to sink or swim, they float. That applies to right-wing and left-wing bullet points. It also applies to religion or the lack of it.
In this corner: “You unbelievers will burn in hell! Here’s our sacred book. Believe every word.” In the opposing corner: “You true believers are idiots and your sacred book is bull crap. There is no God — it’s a scientific fact.”
In the gospel according to Stone and Parker, if the story makes you a better person, that’s truth enough.
“The Book of Mormon” delivers this message in splashy production numbers of kicky songs like “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” “Joseph Smith American Moses,” and “All-American Prophet.” “I Am Africa” skewers the appropriations of self-congratulatory, do-gooder white folks. While roasting religion, “The Book of Mormon” also mocks musical theater itself. As noted, “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is a “Lion King” parody. I also heard echoes of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Annie” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
And the list goes on from there. You name it, this musical jabs it. The parody’s great and the satire sizzles. Unless you walk out in disgust, you’ll laugh your head off. But it’s not just for laughs.
In true “South Park” style, this musical comedy is character-based. Outrageous as it is, “The Book of Mormon” has heart. You care about Arnold and Kevin. You care about Nabulungi and the other villagers.
With any other musical, that might sound sentimental.
This musical’s acid satire and dirty jokes frees you of that charge.
Feel free to laugh. And feel free to care.