THE BOOK OF MORMON with book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, directed by Casey Nicholaw and Parker. At the Eugene O’Neill Theatre (230 West 49th Street, New York City). Open-ended run, new times (beginning May 30): Tuesday-Thursday 7 pm, Friday 3 and 8 pm, Saturday 2 and 8 pm, Sunday 3 pm. $59-$137. 212-239-6200. Rating: NNNNN
Hallelujah! The old-fashioned feel-good musical has returned to Broadway, but this time it's filled with references to AIDS, female circumcision, genocide and enough four-letter words to make even Mel Gibson blush.
The Book Of Mormon is the rarest of creatures: a smart, savage satire with a strong emotional centre. That should come as no surprise, since it's a collaboration between South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who've never met a subject they couldn't send up via their lovable cartoon characters, and Robert Lopez, who got a generation weaned on Sesame Street episodes to laugh over his darkly funny yet big-hearted musical with puppets, Avenue Q.
The show follows two vastly different Mormon missionaries as they attempt to spread Joseph Smith Jr's message about Christ and the latter-day-saints to the residents of a small village in Uganda. Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) is a clean-cut do-gooder who'd rather be recruiting healthy American souls in Orlando, Florida, while Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), a chronic liar and misfit, just wants to have a best friend.
At first, the disease-ridden and impoverished Ugandans ignore the Mormons' message; they're too busy surviving and keeping their daughters from the mutilating General Butt Fucking Naked (Brian Tyree Henry). But soon, lead by a young villager named Nabulungi (Nikki M. James), they begin to turn around.
Some scenes are admittedly jaw-droppingly rude and crude - don't look for the act-two set piece Spooky Mormon Hell Dream sequence, for instance, to be recreated during the Tony Awards (where the musical's been nominated for 14 statues), since it features appearances by Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Genghis Khan, as well as mimed sodomy.
But while the show's humour is as edgy and potentially offensive as anything on FunnyOrDie.Com, the narrative itself feels oddly old-fashioned. Parker and Stone guys know the genre; after all, they created 1999's great musical parody South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
Mormon's plot about well-meaning strangers who encounter different cultures could be straight out of South Pacific or The King And I. There's even a bit of The Music Man's fast-talking Henry Hill in the missionaries' attempts to sell something to the locals in order to hightail it out of town.
But the show's most obvious theatrical target is a certain musical set in Africa that's still playing on Broadway (the touring version's also now in Toronto). Early on, a great visual joke directly references the Disney show, and when we meet the Ugandans, living in a village that's no romanticized circle-of-life veldt but rather a dump littered with carcasses, their impassioned song Hasa Diga Eebowai comes across as an X-rated version of Hakuna Matata.
Another song, I Am Africa, takes the piss out of every self-righteous western millionaire artist who's tried to speak on behalf of the continent. (Here's looking at you, Bono.) What's powerful about the show is how, especially in the second half, the African characters find their own voices - and join in on the joke. And yet, for all its laughs, The Book Of Mormon doesn't ignore the seriousness of the social and political situation.
What gives the work its heart, however, is the affection it has for its characters. Nabulungi isn't saccharine sweet but a smart and resourceful woman weighing her options, and James (Cleopatra to Christopher Plummer's Caesar at Stratford) plays her with intelligence and openness.
Rory O'Malley captures the right note of restrained hysteria as Elder McKinley, who energetically leads the show-stopping, toe-tapping number, Turn It Off, about better living through denial.
Leads Rannells (whom you may have seen here in Jersey Boys) and Daily Show correspondent Gad make a terrific mismatched pair - one an over-striving, Type A personality who learns he can't go it alone, the other a whining but adorable slacker who draws on his geeky knowledge of sci-fi trivia to help his religious interpretations.
The music and lyrics are clever, infectiously catchy and gloriously absurd ("let us smile and laughrica," sings Gad-doing-Bono at one point), and Casey Nicholaw's choreography feels nostalgic yet totally contemporary.
Most surprising of all, The Book Of Mormon never feels mean-spirited. We care about the characters' beliefs and situations. In the wrong hands, the show could descend into pure camp or forced farce. But directors Parker and Nicholaw capture just the right tone, resulting in a great new musical.