The Book of Mormon really is that good
The Book of Mormon finally arrived in Denver, freighted with a massive weight of hype, slick marketing, praise and excitement for this musical created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, both Colorado natives. The show had sold out within hours last January, with friends posting photographs of themselves holding tickets on Facebook; other friends responded with likes and/or bitter lamentations about their own ticketless plight. The New York Times's Ben Brantley had hailed the musical as the kind that left our grandparents "walking on air if not on water" — but nothing could be that good, I thought. So on the way to the touring show's opening night Sunday, my friend and I discussed scalping our tickets, figuring we'd get no less than $500 apiece.
We're glad we didn't (and not just because that would have been wrong): The Book of Mormon IS that good. The show is smart, cheeky, raunchy, irreverent and also surprisingly and exuberantly good-hearted. I was happy when I'd first heard that Parker and Stone were taking on Mormonism; I remember with pleasure a merciless South Park episode on the topic. And my opinion of the Mormon presidential candidate couldn't be expressed even in Westword — the sole news medium that would allow the name of one of the characters, General Buttfuckingnaked, into print. (When the on-stage Joseph Smith refused to reveal the location of the golden plates that would prove his parley with Christ had really happened, I couldn't stop laughing. Tax returns, anyone?) But while there's plenty of Mormon mockery, the ending — which has to do with the power of myth and the limits of rationality — works beautifully.
The story concerns two young Mormons sent to Uganda as missionaries. Elder Price is tall, handsome and idealistic, Elder Cunningham a bumbling little shlub. In Uganda, they discover problems well beyond their understanding: There's widespread hunger; women suffer clitoridectomies; AIDS-stricken men believe they can cure themselves by raping babies; the General terrorizes the village.
These terrible ills are quite real (as the Denver Center Theatre Company's brilliant production of Ruined brought forcefully home a year back), making this dangerous territory for satire. And the history of colonialism teems with white men sallying forth to bring the light of civilization to the dark-skinned masses. Parker and Stone don't minimize any of this. Instead, they clear the air by making these things funny — beyond funny. Fizzy, crazy and entirely unrealistic. The missionaries are complete goofs, as are the Africans. The moment that captures a world of meaning in a single searing image occurs when Elder Price braves the General's camp. Singing ecstatically, he seizes the General's hand and pulls him to his feet, eyes turned heavenward, chest filled with the joy and glory of his belief. And there's the General beside him, torn between rage and sheer incredulity.
We know from South Park episodes and also their feature film, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, that Parker and Stone understand the musical form to their bones. For Mormon, they joined with Robert Lopez, of the boundary-breaking Avenue Q, and the result is both parody and homage. There isn't a single dud among the songs, and I haven't been as exhilarated by a showpiece in years as I was by the diabolically inventive Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.
The ideas may be freewheeling, but this production is tight, tight, tight. The acting could easily be over-the-top cartoony, but all of the actors are recognizably human, and even, in a ridiculous way, dignified. Gavin Creel is a powerful Elder Price and Jared Gertner a charming, nebbishy Cunningham. Derrick Williams poises the warlord nicely between menace and buffoonery. And Samantha Marie Ware plays Nabulungi with sweetness and sly humor. The choreography, by Casey Nicholaw, is amazingly good, and all of the elements, including Ann Roth's costumes, Scott Pask's set design and Brian Macevitt's expressive lighting, work fluidly together. This is an evening that dissolves distress, pain, pomposity and pretension in a blast of music, color, good humor, gut-splitting laughter and sheer joy.
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