DALLAS The hype about the 2011 Tony-winning (nine of them!) musical The Book of Mormon is true. It’s just as vulgar and irreverent as you’ve heard, and probably more so. Of course, if you’re familiar with the previous work by co-creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez – namely the long-running TV show South Park (Parker and Stone) and the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q (Lopez) – then you probably already guessed that.
Just as South Park is the kind of satire that aims to offend everyone, so goes The Book of Mormon, which leaves no bit of vulgarity unturned as it skewers organized religion and sends up musicals themselves. It has obvious references to The King and I (part of that one gets a brilliant parody here), The Lion King and Footloose, among others. It has to be the naughtiest show to ever have a sellout, multi-year run on Broadway (tickets are still hard to come by), and do just as well on the road, even in the Bible Belt. Its current Dallas run at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House is all but sold out, with scattered single tickets here and there (there is a $25 ticket lottery at each performance).
The hype is so big, they didn’t even offer any pre-interviews to the press in this market. Why bother when it’s sold out? Talk about effective word of mouth – even if those mouths are gaping open.
True enough, The Book of Mormon, co-directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also choreographs), is frequently spit-take hysterical, and the entertainment quotient is nonstop.
The story follows two young Mormon men, Elder Price (Mark Evans) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) as they are sent on their two-year mission to a village in Uganda, very different from Elder Price’s dream of being sent to convert souls in Orlando, Fla. In Africa, they face a set of problems they never imagined in their whitewashed Salt Lake City. Extreme poverty, famine, myriad diseases and vicious warlords? That’s the stuff of the everyday for the Ugandans, and again, if you’ve ever seen South Park (the Starvin’ Marvin episode comes to mind), you know those are ripe topics for did-they-just-say-that? jokes.
But here’s the thing, even if the show’s music is head-smackingly derivative (even when it’s not trying to be) and uninteresting, there's no doubt you’ll leave singing the songs – because of the lyrics. The title of the first song in Africa, Hasa Diga Eebowai, translates to something that would be offensive to Christians (especially fundamentalists), but because it offers a bouncy Hakuna Matata words-to-live-by lesson, it’s one worth repeating. Songs like Turn It Off, I Believe and You and Me (But Mostly Me) (the last is a blatant riff on The Wizard and I from Wicked – remember that Lopez’s Avenue Q was a major Tony upset when it beat Wicked for Best Musical) are equally catchy and/or moving, and entirely memorable.
What's most amazing about The Book of Mormon is that its satire is exceedingly clever; just when you think that there’s nothing more offensive to say or reference with regard to Mormonism, Christianity and other religions, the show’s ending hits you with a Thor's hammer-sized message about the importance of having faith in whatever it is you believe. To get this, it’s important to realize that there’s something to be said about being able to distinguish between metaphorical and literal interpretations.
As for this touring show, Evans and O'Neill offer bravura performances. O’Neill gets to be the clown to Evans’ straight man, and both hit their strides brilliantly; neither relies strictly on tropes from either of their character types. As the African girl Nabulingi, a romantic lead for one of the Mormons, Samantha Marie Ware has the show’s best voice and helps bring all the over-the-top comedy (somewhat) down to earth.
Scenic design (Scott Pask) and costumes (Ann Roth) contribute to the spectacle (the second-act Spooky Mormon Hell Dream number is incredible); but amid all the big songs, dance numbers and the barrage of profanity, the most important spectacle here is Parker and Stone's humor and satire. Much like the kind of visual spectacle in shows like The Lion King and Wicked, the word “subtlety” has no place in their world of comedy.
If you leaving saying “I think I’m offended … but I still loved it!,” then the creators have succeeded in a big way.