Review: The Book of Mormon by touring company
by Brian Paul Scipione
The Book of Mormon, a ground-breaking musical comedy with music, lyrics, and book by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone, premiered on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on March 24, 2011, and it is still very much a hot ticket over two decades later. The show is the brainchild of the creators of the notoriously raunchy tv series South Park, so it is reasonable to expect it will have a similar tone—but since it was also a Broadway hit, it's also reasonable to assume it will be toned down.
It is not. Not even remotely.
The jokes are not merely adult oriented or envelope pushing, just like the South Park jokes, they're designed to be as controversial and boundary-destroying as possible. This is, of course, what its fans love. You can safely assiume that the other thing they truly love is its skewering of popular trends, celebrities, brands, religions, and political, cultural, and historical events. No one is safe from South Park's caustic gaze.
This approach resulted in the much-publicized departure of South Park voice cast member Issac Hayes after an episode that mocked the Church of Scientology. Hayes was a scientology adherent. Fans see this brashness as essential to South Park. Some consider the creators to be modern-day versions of famous satirists of the past suvh as Voltairre, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Dorothy Parker.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are not mere parodists. When they choose a subject, they often focus on the most absurd but true-to-life details, present them seriously, and harvest comic gold. Look again at the 2015 episode on scientology a great example of this. It simply relates scientologists' version of how the world began. Their story involves a volcano in Hawaii that Lord Xenu filled more than 75 million years ago with the frozen bodies of many different species of aliens. The dawn of humanity was the moment that brain-washed souls of these deceased aliens attached themselves to human beings. They afflicted humans with fears and anxieties that plague us to this day.
The creators have alleged that The Book of Mormon isn't anti-Mormoni or even anti-religion; rather, the theme is that religion can be force of good, but only if its teachings are taken metaphorically instead of literally. And yes, literal interpretations are the main source for this musical’s comedy.
Many devout Mormons aren't buying it. They find the depiction of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS), neither consistent nor wholly accurate. Much ado is made of the fact that Joesph Smith never showed anyone the golden plates engraved with the text of the Book of Mormon. However, Mormon historical records record eleven signed testimonies from people who indeed saw the plates. On the other hand, there's a scathing line towards the end of the play that God changed his mind about black people in 1978. This refers to the undisputed fact that “the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances” until June of 1978 (quote taken from the official LDS website).
So, it's safe to say despite some quibbles,The Book of Mormon musical is an outright satire, and not an LDS parody. As it stands ,one of the world’s best-known parody religions is Pastafarianism, or better known as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pastafarrrianism claims to have tens of thousands of members. That's nothing compared to the more than seventeen million people who'd seen The Book of Mormon as of 2022. The piece has also grossed more than $750 million, received fourteen Tony Award nominationos, and won Tonys Awards. By the way, the Mormon Church currently has just over seventeen million members.
It's clear that The Book of Mormon’s success is due to its controversial nature and unrelenting storyline but rather to the simple fact that it's a work of high quality. Most modern audiences find it screamingly hilarious, the songs are well written and catchy ,the costumes are on point, the changing artistic backgrounds are well detailed and engaging, the dancing is terrific, and the physical comedy is well timed and adroitly pulled off.
Nonetheless, The Book of Mormon will always serve as mark the dividing line between old Broadway and modern Broadway (let's say Broadway 2.0). It essentially, though probably unintentionally gave permission to producers and fans of the American musical to re-set the trraditional standards of theatrical entertainment and vitiate substance and artistic merit in pursuit of high ticket sales by blatant pandering to cultural hot topics. Broadway 2.0 is why so many Broadway productions in the past decade have been shoddy adaptations of beloved movies and television shows. Pop culture characters from Stephen King’s Carrie to Stan Lee’s Spiderman tread the boards not because their stories benefit from musical interpretation, but because they're marketable franchises.
One may surmise that musicals about Barbie, GI Joe, and Transformers are not that far off.
An argument could be made that 2004’s Best Musical winner Avenue Q by songwriter Robert Lopez, co-creator of The Book of Mormon may have been the cross-over point into Broadway 2.0, only if comparison is limited to the extent to which the work explores sensitive topics and uses profanity. I find that too wide a gulf to cross. Not to mention that Avenue Q’s puppets parody those of Sesame Street.
One glaring aspect of The Book of Mormon is neither satire nor parody: its blatant maliging of Ugandan characters and Africa in general. They are depicted either as sadistic warlords or gullible hillbillies who engage in blasphemy, torture, infanticide, sex crimes, and avarice-driven paramilitary gangsterism. In 2021, the creative team behind the play held a two-week workshop to address this controversy. They wound up rewriting some scenes to elevate the role of the lead female African American character.
Keep all of the above exposition in mind and heed, even so: The Book of Mormon is an outrageous evening of engaging musical performance and side-splitting comedy. Sam Nackman as Elder Cunningham, the bumbling sidekick (the true lead in this story) is extraordinarily funny as he applies a healthy dose of imagination and pop cultural to evangelizing Mormonism story. With his singing, his dancing, and most of all his infectious élan, Nackman steals every scene he’s in.
This production is tight as a tourniquet and there's never a dull moment, unlike some other Broadway musicals. The plot continues to raise the stakes, and the cast’s energy is along for the ride. Absolutely no one phones it in, which is all the more impressive for a touring cast. It may seem moot to endorse the 13th-longest running Broadway musical, especially since it's not even remotely losing steam. Many who have seen it are still eager to do so again.
And while its achievement is a sideways surprise quite different from most Broadway 2.0 musicals that followed it, The Book of Mormon does provoke controversy and inspire thoughtful dialogue, as good art should.
November 14 - November 19, 2023
825 E Basse Rd
San Antonio, TX, 78209
November 14 - 19, 2023
Bass Concert Hall, Austin