In Act 2 of The Book of Mormon, the bumbling but well-meaning young missionary Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) prepares to baptize a young Ugandan woman, Nabulungi (Samantha Marie Ware), in a duet and dance that couldn’t more salaciously invoke a different sort of first-time experience. The two slip behind a curtain, and the silhouette of him slowly bending her backwards and lowering her to the water is lights-out funny.
The Tony Award-wining musical is sacrilegious throughout and yet somehow leaves some historical Mormon tenets surprisingly untouched, including polygamy. But while there are limits to the blasphemy, there are no boundaries on language, and a couple of songs, in spite of their joyous tone, could make some sailors — and more sensitive critics — blush.
Given that the satirical musical comes from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, and Robert Lopez, lyricist of the grown-up Sesame Street parody musical Avenue Q (with the song “The Internet is for Porn”), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the work is outrageous in almost every imaginable way. But they crafted a show meant for a wide audience on Broadway, and the tone is as upbeat as the language is crass. It’s the contrast that makes some of the crudest declarations so funny.
The Book of Mormon is an odd couple story about missionaries sent to a remote area of Uganda to win converts. The overachieving Elder Price (Mark Evans) wanted to be sent to Orlando, and a backdrop of the Magic Kingdom is ripe for comparison to an earlier backdrop of the Mormon church’s iconic temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. Cunningham just wants to have a real friend and be accepted by others, and he’s loose with the facts when it’s convenient.
They arrive in a remote area and meet the villagers and a corps of Mormon missionaries in full panic because they have not recruited a single convert. There literally aren’t any doorbells to ring, and the leader of the village, Mafala Hatimbi (Stanley Wayne Mathis), explains to the two newcomers, who have just been robbed, that the community is beset by poverty, AIDS and roving bands of warlords, including one (whose name is not printable here), who wants to make sure all the women undergo clitoral circumcision. Mafala tries to shelter his daughter Nabulungi from the warlord. Price and Cunningham are horrified by the array of plagues, and Mafala explains that the villagers have a simple saying to deal with hardship, which is an extremely vulgar ode to The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata.”
The lead actors all turn in fine performances. O’Neill’s questionable understanding of Mormonism and his mission is brilliantly mirrored by his clowning and physical humor. Evans delivered a sharp and nuanced performance, letting Price’s vanity shine without overplaying his pomposity. Ware offered a couple of powerful and brilliant solos, particularly in “Baptize Me.”
The Book of Mormon has a very large cast and is full of big show-biz numbers, notably the Mormon boys singing “Turn It Off,” about suppressing all sorts of basic human feelings and urges; the pop-cultural extravaganza “Making Things Up Again”; and the hilariously vulgar and upbeat villagers’ account of the founding of the Mormon church, “Joseph Smith American Moses.”
Many of the songs are catchy, even if they are not appropriate for church, work or family gatherings. The show is full of wonderfully subversive notions: Mormonism is feted as America’s religion — full of game-show appeal, corporate operating procedures and prizes. There’s something wickedly politically incorrect about an African village afflicted with all manner of environmental and social ills. But Act 2 and the overall musical aren’t really dark at all. Parker and Stone may have intended to go to Broadway to move the mountain, but they saw the light in the Great White Way, and it seems that they were the converts in delivering this hilariously irreverent and strangely uplifting show.
The Book of Mormon
Through Oct. 27
Saenger Theatre, 1111 Canal St., 504-287-0351