Don’t expect to find any members of the Mormon faith protesting outside The Book of Mormon, a tuneful, unabashedly silly and absolutely uproarious new musical by the powerhouse team of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez and Drowsy Chaperone director Casey Nicholaw. Even while parodying Mormonism, particularly its controversial origin story and the doorbell-ringing practices of its dedicated followers, The Book of Mormon also celebrates the power of religion – any religion – to give people hope in the face of despair.
It begins with Elder Price and Elder Cunningham – two male Mormon teens from Salt Lake City – finishing their missionary training and being shipped off to Uganda to try and baptize the inhabitants of a small village. But once there, they learn that Africa is nothing like The Lion King. They are confronted with warlords, death, AIDS and famine. In a brilliant production number, the Ugandans explain their philosophy of "Hasa Diga Eebowai," the translation of which probably shouldn’t be published on this website.
Price, the cockiest student of his class, is disheartened by his inability to make a difference. After all, how can the teachings of Joseph Smith help the villager who complains of having maggots in his scrotum? Cunningham, an outcast who has yet to actually read the Book of Mormon, impulsively starts to preach his own religious teachings that derive from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. His stories, designed to speak directly to his new audience, are surprisingly effective.
While the plot is somewhat thin and occasionally feels like an overextended sketch, especially during a so-called “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” the musical ultimately comes across as fresh, smart and heartfelt. As you’d probably expect, the show’s potty-mouth creators do not refrain from using explicit language. But in spite of the curse words, The Book of Mormon is an upbeat, even sentimental musical that combines Rodgers & Hammerstein, Les Miz powerhouse ballads and tap dancing.
The cast, led by Josh Grad, Andrew Rannells and Nikki M. James, is uniformly excellent and marked by unending energy and enthusiasm.