The Book of Mormon (Eugene O’Neill Theatre), the much-anticipated new show that teams the creators of South Park with one of Avenue Q’s songwriters, poses an intriguing question: Can you make a feel-good musical out of essentially ill-natured materials? As the world knows, to its frequent irritation, every year large numbers of adolescent boys raised in the Mormon faith are paired up and sent out, on the verge of adulthood, to do two years’ service as missionaries, ringing doorbells, proselytizing on behalf of their Church, and distributing free copies of The Book of Mormon, allegedly dictated by the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith in 1834.
The musical focuses on the adventures of one such pair, classically mismatched for comic effect: Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), a handsome born winner, the admiration of his classmates and instructors at the Missionary Training Center, and his desperately overeager nightmare antithesis, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad)—pudgy, slovenly, socially inept, fixated on escapist sci-fi movies, and cursed with a dangerously un-Mormon tendency, in tight spots, to blurt out the first absurdity that comes into his head. He gets plenty of occasions for blurting, since the Church fathers, in their inscrutable wisdom, have assigned this lethally uncoordinated team to a dirt-poor section of northern Uganda, where the population, ravaged by AIDS and marauding warlords, worries much more about simple survival than about ultimate salvation, especially as offered by a religion that didn’t decide blacks could attain it until 1978.
Basically, Book of Mormon adopts an attitude of affectionate condescension toward its characters, Mormon Americans and native Africans alike. It sustains the customary cheery tone of old-style musical comedy, but treats that as a joke, too, by spicing it liberally with profanity, South Park–style snideness, and grisly factual detail. (The show’s running gag is, “I have maggots in my scrotum.”) Taken purely as diversion, the mixture works surprisingly well for much of the evening. Trouble only sets in because the grimly resonant facts, so much reiterated, constantly collide with that cheery musical-comedy tone.
Inevitably, the jollity starts to pall; the colliding tones never jell. In the face of Africa’s very real agony, the show’s satirical targets start to seem trivial and facile. The arbitrary twists that, in classic musical-comedy fashion, resolve its increasingly ragged plot, in this context, feel annoyingly glib, ultimately making the show seem smug. Rather than innovatively subverting the showbiz cheeriness, the gross-out jokes referencing matters like dysentery and raped babies resemble mud smeared on some quaint old chromolithograph in a hipsterish schoolkid attempt to create conceptual art.
Not that the fun is totally lacking, especially when choreographer Casey Nicholaw (who co-directed the show with co-author Trey Parker) sets his dancers in motion, with notably exhilarating results in two numbers early on, a mock Lion King hoopla in which the Ugandans teach the two new arrivals their dim view of God, and a manic tap number in which a bevy of Mormon missionaries explain the art of suppressing negative feelings. Nicholaw also supplies two chuckle-inducing spoof pageants—one telling the story of Mormonism’s founding more or less straight, and a later one giving the natives’ version of it as filtered through Elder Cunningham’s hasty revisions.
I don’t mean to be captious. The show has an overall exhilarating energy to it, as well as many individual bright and amusing moments, as long as you can slough off its frequent efforts to be sordid purely for shock effect, which will no doubt provoke the intended reaction in many theatergoers. The score is serviceable rather than memorable, and the performance tends to have that hard-blasting, overamplified approach that makes so much of today’s Broadway seem like fast food at high-end gourmet prices. Gad’s range of comic effects seems particularly limited, but Rannells, Michael Potts as the duo’s African guide, and the appealing Nikki M. James as his daughter all display the resource and charm by which Broadway performers have traditionally enlivened musicals. Whether, in our exploding world, their efforts are enough to carry a show that strives to find cute laughs in misery, disease, and violence is finally a question for the audience, not for me.