Hallelujah and Hosanna for ‘The Book of Mormon’
By: Isa Goldberg
The new musical from “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker along with Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q”) delivers shot after shot of high-test energy. Think musical comedy on steroids – you can be sure the group that gets this one isn’t getting the placebo. In fact, “The Book of Mormon” will “scare you out of depression or anything that looks like Uganda.”
Indeed, Uganda – the land of “war, poverty and famine” – is the destination for the eighteen-year-old missionaries Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad). Like the “Road” pictures of old with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, mostly everything in “Mormon” takes a back seat to the gags.
But as a duo, Rannells and Gad register the kind of chemistry that brings to mind Fred and Ginger. Just as charming and graceful are they, even though Gad’s Cunningham is a misfit with a grossly flabby belly that wobbles dangerously when dancing. What an undermined sidekick he is to the nimble, handsome Rannells. “A prophet with Donny Osmond flair”, he looks like a picture book version of a snake oil salesman, the one who wangles his way into your heart and never leaves.
In fact, the show’s message about changing people’s lives is delivered with infomercial drive and persistence. Summing up the history of the Mormon religion – two Hebrew tribes, the Nephites and Lamanites, at war in America – Parker and Stone introduce us to Christ, Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and his successor Brigham Young.
Ann Roth’s costumes are a mashup of early American garb (pilgrims to frontiersmen) for the early Mormons contrasting with an idiosyncratic blend of salvation army and native dress for the Ugandans, white shirts and ties for the missionaries and, of course, sandals and a white cloak for Jesus. The sets (Scott Pask) are even more artificial. Towering steeples of the Mormon church nestled in mountain peaks are set against signs for Walmart and Wells Fargo, verdant lawns, and too-brightly colored flowers, all revealing a world of artifice.
The score by Parker, Stone and Lopez, evoking dance songs and show tunes of recent vintage, is neither original nor memorable. The muzak background is mocking and satirical in the same way the sets and costumes are.
Indeed, the show delivers a warm-hearted moral about fabricating things. That is Cunningham’s predicament; according to his father, he lies so he can feel like one of the gang. But when he teaches the Ugandans to have sex with frogs (and not babies) in order to cure AIDS, and convinces them that by standing together they can put an end to female circumcision, he achieves the communal harmony which was his mission.
Fortunately, Casey Nicholaw’s choreography emphasizes buoyancy over artistry and vigor over prowess. My favorite number, the tap dancing gay anthem with the lyric “Turn it off/Bid the sad feeling farewell”, arrives well after the audience has already achieved a state nearer to Nirvana than Salt Lake City. The more spectacular dance numbers, especially the one about a “spooky Mormon hell dream” featuring Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer, seem contrived by comparison. And the repeated Lion King references should have been passé by now.
Just when you think of settling into the doldrums, then the oddest jibes get hurled from the stage. I’ve rarely laughed so hard, and especially at such seemingly stupid and obviously irreverent jokes.
“The Book of Mormon” is at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre at 230 West 49th Street. For the performance schedule and tickets, please call 212-239-6200, visit Telecharge.com or go