After years of wanting to see The Book of Mormon (always sold out on Broadway), I finally saw it at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I used to wonder how Mormons felt about being parodied in a successful Broadway musical by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Now that I’ve seen the show, I think I know: Parker and Stone have managed to walk the fine line between mocking and respecting the Mormon religion. Broadway musicals are often serious so it was nice watching a show that was unabashedly a comedy.
It is a comedy that almost never devolves into vulgarity. OK, there is the awesome upbeat, pop-ish number “Hasa Diga Eebowai” that basically says FU God. Put your head to the sky, list all the bad things in your life and say “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Everyone in the village has AIDS, “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” This could be the theme song of my life.
There are several other gems, like the wonderfully subtle mocking of “Turn It Off.” The song blends a couple of different classic Broadway styles including a weird tap-dancing bridge in the middle as it preaches the idea of living in denial and that any bad thoughts can be “turned off like a light switch.” “I Believe” is a song all about reaffirming one’s belief when common sense says not to.
By keeping all of the Mormons so darn earnest, nerdy and naive, Parker and Stone manage to never have them do anything that would “denigrate” their religion. The show is actually a celebration of their beliefs and who they are as a people. Who wouldn’t want a friend like the conceited Elder Price (Mark Evans) or the unpopular, prone-to-lying Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill)?
However, I found the portrayal of Africans in Uganda highly offensive. At some point in our history can we please get past the idea that everyone in Africa is an uneducated moron who goes around f’ing babies (literally), maggots in scrotums? The more I think about it the more annoyed I become.
I get it, it’s Parker and Stone so you expect a certain amount of skewering – these are the guys who gave us South Park and one of the funniest movies ever, Team America: World Police. I walked into Book of Mormon expecting a lighthearted poke at the Mormon Church and religion; instead it is a wretched, offensive slam on Africa. There is a fine line between comedy and blatant racism and this show crosses it.
As much as I truly love the soundtrack, Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker’s direction and Scott Pask’s set design seem a tad uninspired. However Nicholaw’s choreography work is at times brilliant in how it subtly mocks Broadway dance conventions by exaggerating certain movements and throwing in random out-of-context full-cast tap routines in the middle.
Other musical highlights include “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” and the hysterically jazzy “All-American Prophet,” and while I love the rock track “Man Up,” I don’t think it should have been the curtain jerker before intermission – “I Believe” would have been better. There are some big misses, like the really weird “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Joseph Smith American Moses.”
I’m not going to say I didn’t like the show because I did, but there was something about it that just felt disappointingly off.
The Book of Mormon runs at the Kennedy Center Opera House from July 9 – August 18, 2013. Performances take place Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm.