Long before “Saturday Night Live” started serving up stale Mitt Romney jokes, the bad boys behind “South Park” were lampooning Mormonism with a song in their heart.
Now, with Romney neck in neck with President Barack Obama for the highest office in the land, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Tony-winning musical “The Book of Mormon” is hitting the road. Just don’t expect the Romney ticket to lose any steam in the process. Parker and Stone long ago perfected the sweet satirical science, the kind told through keen observation and a heaping helping of heart.
That formula is pushed and pulled with “Mormon,” but it hardly comes close to breaking. Blame a second act resolution which puts the faith’s more curious interpretations in perspective. The production also offers more sheer entertainment value than any musical in recent memory, period.
The show is a theatrical marvel, one without even a single sub-par musical number or superfluous storyline to impede the joy.
“The Book of Mormon,” which officially kicked off its first road tour in Denver Sunday night, wrapped with Parker and Stone on stage to bask in the show’s well-deserved reputation.
Elders Price and Cunningham (Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner) are sent to Uganda for their 2-year Mormon mission. They discover their fellow missionaries have had little success converting the locals, a group of kind-hearted folk desperate just to survive until tomorrow. They’re fighting AIDS, starvation and a power-mad general (Derrick Williams), so matters of faith are understandably pushed aside for the moment.
Price, considered a missionary prodigy, isn’t sure anyone can do the Lord’s work in this broken land.
“Africa is nothing like ‘The Lion King,'” he grumbles.
But Cunningham, like Lou Costello, Jack Black and Jonah Hill all rolled into one uproarious package, refuses to give up.
Parker and Stone remain unrivaled in satirical circles. Not only do they hit all targets with equal vigor, they often do so without the kind of malice seen from other performers. The shock value tactics on display in both “South Park” and “Team America: World Police,” the duo’s puppet comedy, weren’t curbed for the Great White Way debut. The production’s villain is General Butt-Fucking Naked, and the running gag which wraps the second act involves a man dealing with maggots in his scrotum.
If Parker and Stone were simply filth peddlers no one would care. “Mormon” reveals them to have an understanding of what makes a great Broadway musical and the kind of comic energy that could fuel a thousand stand-up routines. The show deftly segues from coarse comedy to “fish out of water” high jinks and pinpoint sight gags.
What other show could use a baptism sequence as a metaphor for lovemaking and not dampen either in the process?
Parker and Stone’s “South Park” work, while often brilliant, can be maddeningly inconsistent. Even triumphant episodes lose their way, or feel the need to indulge in gross material as if meeting some unwritten requirement – hey, we missed our fart joke quota for the week.
In “Mormon,” it’s hard to find a wasted gesture or gag. The touring cast captures the geeky energy of the Mormons at work and play, and the superlative sets range from impressive jungle huts to hanging draperies meant to convey the numerous landscapes the story demands.
The songs are instantly catchy and impeccably groomed. The show doesn’t necessarily break the musical mold, but it’s coy enough to swap out styles to keep audiences guessing, as in the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number which ends with a top hat and cane shuffle.
Pop culture references abound in the second act, although they’re used judiciously to illustrate the lengths Cunningham will go to in order to score a few converts. And it’s not hard to see why after experiencing “I Believe,” the most robust production number which hammers Mormonism without restraint.
“I beee-leeeve in 1978 God changed his mind about black people,” Price sings, referencing the church’s checkered history on race relations. Polygamy and magic underwear don’t get name checked, but the church’s hard-line stance on gay impulses gets parodied to fizzy effect in “Turn it Off.”
The production routinely takes simplistic takes on Mormon policies to mock, a cheap theatrical trick that still pays off given the sweetness at the heart of the story. The elders aren’t cruel, just naive. Cunningham’s heart is as big as the Death Star, and Price’s character arc is one of any over-praised young men who learns plenty about himself in times of duress.
The mirth is temporarily upset the first time a raped baby is mentioned, and the hardships faced by the Ugandan people are no laughing matter no matter how Parker and Stone “South Park”-ize it. The duo insist on making audiences uncomfortable through their work, but with “Mormon” the sense of giddiness is, frankly, unstoppable.
Those who prefer not to have their faith mocked in any fashion should stay far, far away from “The Book of Mormon.” Presumptive GOP presidential candidate Romney, though, would be well served to attend a performance should his campaign caravan intersect with the touring production. If President Richard Nixon could drop in on “Laugh In,” Romney can be a good sport about his faith and shake up his stoic image all at once.
(Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2012)
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies