'Book of Mormon' Brings Its Good-Natured Blasphemy to L.A.
The big news in the world on Wednesday morning was that a film production expressly conceived to make fun of a particular religious group and its beliefs was inciting murderous riots in the Middle East. But the big news in Los Angeles on Wednesday evening was that the opening night of a musical theater production expressly conceived to make fun of a particular religious group and its beliefs was inciting a laugh riot in Hollywood, with three full-page ads in the program purchased by the targeted faith community itself.
"The Book of Mormon" at the Pantages is fairly hilarious. Though unless our culture loosens up to the point where running gags about men with AIDS having sex with babies become acceptable family fare, you're not likely to see it joining "Grease" and "Oklahoma!" as a staple of the community and high school theater rotation in years to come.
Created by the legendary "South Park" brain trust, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with "Avenue Q" co-author Robert Lopez and theater director Casey Nicholaw, "Book of Mormon" offers a ribald ribbing rather than a mean-spirited bashing of the Mormons' myths of origin and global missionary culture. The show also takes shots for good measure at the plight of Africans living with poverty and violence. Oh, and Disney and "The Lion King," too.
A pair of college-age Mormon "elders," best-and-brightest type Kevin Price and loserish schlub Arnold Cunningham, are sent off on a two-year mission to Uganda, where they are charged with spreading the faith and chalking up as many baptisms as they can score. The moment they get there, though, they find the war- and famine-ravaged locals cheerfully unresponsive to their proselytizing message (the show's most talked-about musical number, "Hasa Diga Eebowai," displays the native community rising above their daily troubles in a cathartically obscene rejection of the idea that God might be on their side. Take that, "Hakuna Matata"!)
Left momentarily alone when the apparent impossibility of their assignment leads Price to request a transfer to the cushier climes of Orlando, a solo-flying Cunningham starts making up his own sometimes perverted stories and outlandish moral lessons in response to the plaints and predicaments of the Ugandan villagers. By attributing these improvised teachings to the Book and the prophecies of ur-Mormon Joseph Smith himself, Cunningham not only gains 20-odd baptized converts to his warped variation on the faith of his fathers, he also inspires the village population to stand up against the aggression of their warlord nemesis, the rabid clitorectomist General Butt-[Someth]ing Naked. (Yeah, just because your 6-year-old niece loved "Mary Poppins" at the Ahmanson this summer doesn't mean you have to take her to this one, too.)
Of course the "South Park"' brand of humor is an established hallmark of our generation by now, and "The Book of Mormon" made contemporary theater history (and won nine Tonys) last year as one of the very few genuinely popular culture-influenced original Broadway musicals in living memory. So even if the results aren't entirely perfect--there's hardly a catchy or sophisticated tune in the whole show, for example--any cavils are overwhelmed by the brilliantly audacious imposition of these authors' distinctive sensibility onto the traditional idioms of American musical theater.
Classic song-and-dance numbers include "Turn It Off," featuring a chorus line of young Mormon men boasting about their highly developed capacity for self-repression. In an obvious homage to the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" pantomime sequence in Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I," the converted Ugandans are shown staging a reenactment of their new religion's history for a group of visiting dignitaries from Salt Lake City, culminating in choreographer Nicholaw's surprisingly vivid depiction of the effects of dysentery on the Mormon community during their westward migration to Utah. Price's second-act song of mock uplift, "I Believe," redolent of countless musical theater affirmations of facile personal growth, lists some of the more unusual articles of Mormon faith: "I believe that the ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America....I believe that God has a plan for all of us. I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet....And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people."
And then there's the "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" sequence which defies any attempt at encapsulation and should really be experienced spoiler-free.
Although the institutional Church of Latter-Day Saints gets lampooned pretty thoroughly in "The Book of Mormon," there is not a single malicious inclination or act of bad faith evident among any of the young missionaries themselves, who are all presented as genuine-hearted, if somewhat goofy, lads of good will. When Cunningham's quasi-Mormon Ugandan community turns back the armed warlords ready to kill and maim them, they credit the embrace of locally relevant religious metaphors for their new-found strength.
So the show is not really anti-Mormon per se, or even an attack on the religious impulse more generally, as much as it is a spoof on rigid adherence to Church rules, practices and doctrine as well as our distinctly American brand of naive missionary fervor--with more huge, un-PC laughs per minute than any show we've ever experienced before.
"The Book of Mormon" plays eight shows a week at the Pantages Theater through November 25. Full-price tickets range from $35 up to $214.25 (minus some service charges if you buy in person at the Pantages box office).
A limited number of $25 tickets (two per person) will be made available by lottery at the Pantages box office before each performance, with entries accepted 2 1/2 hours before curtain and the random drawing taking place half an hour later.