If you take away one thing from The Book of Mormon, the Broadway smash now running at DPAC, it probably won't be a new perspective on life, an insight into yourself or a sense of awe about the transformative power of theater. Instead, it will almost certainly be this: "I have maggots in my SCRO-tuuuum!"
These words keep intruding on songs throughout the show, a lacerating reminder of the gulf between the frivolous American problems of a gaggle of young Mormon missionaries and the much direr problems—famine, war, dysentery, AIDS—of their prospective African converts.
It's the most uproarious running gag South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (with Bobby Lopez, composer of Frozen and Avenue Q) came up with for a sacrilegious musical comedy that pillories the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and any other religion with imperial ambitions—for the self-denial it inflicts on its followers and the uselessness of its doctrines for people without privilege.
The odd couple at the center of the satire consists of squeaky-clean Elder Price, who is a little too invested in his own leading role in Heavenly Father's schemes, and slovenly nerd Elder Cunningham, an excitable fuck-up who is too hapless for coherent theology. Price prays to be sent to the promised land of Orlando, Florida, but instead finds himself yoked to Cunningham in a Ugandan village whose denizens have more pressing concerns than the afterlife, such as the reign of terror of General Butt-Fucking Naked (based on a real Liberian warlord). He wants to circumcise all the women in the village, including Nabulungi (whom Cunningham keeps calling things like Neutrogena), the virginal object of desire—and more, since the villagers believe having sex with a virgin can cure AIDS.
Facing these horrors and doubting his own faith, Price has a breakdown while Cunningham, improbably, thrives, countering Price's disillusionment with illusions. Cunningham starts earning the converts that have eluded Price by spicing up Mormon articles of faith (which he admits are boring) with characters from Star Wars, Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, though it's a Pyrrhic victory, since his parishioners now believe that Mormon prophet Joseph Smith had sex with frogs.
The result is a foul pop-culture stew, with Yoda gags for Hollywood fans and riffs on other popular musicals (The Lion King's happy-go-lucky "Hakuna Matata" is re-wrought as a more apt phrase meaning "Fuck you, God") for the Broadway crowd. Though farcical, the terrain is dark and lacks redemption; the show weighs the brutality of African beliefs against the absurdity of Mormon ones and finds only outrage in the balance, as well as the thin insight that different metaphysics can't coexist in close proximity.
The Africans are not rendered as romantically noble by any means, but at least we are shown that they have the excuse of poverty and colonial oppression. The closest Mormons get to a sympathetic moment comes in the song "Turn It Off," which plumbs the repressed anxiety and sexuality beneath their shiny beliefs.
This Book of Mormon has a different cast than the one that came to DPAC in 2014, and perhaps it was just the diminishing returns of rewatching a rather glib show, but David Larsen seemed less flawless than Mark Evans as Price, and Cody Jamison Strand more grating than Christopher John O'Neill as Cunningham. Strand's physical comedy was superb and his super-nerd screech suited the role, though it sometimes rendered punch lines unintelligible.
Since its 2011 debut, The Book of Mormon has racked up nine Tony Awards and a nod from The New York Times as the best musical of the young century. And to be sure, it is a spectacular show. The songs stick in your head, the dancing is delightful and the sets are immersive fantasies. But it isn't deep, and is unlikely to challenge anyone except teenagers, prudes or, well, Mormons.
Still, there are an infinite number of worse ways to spend an evening than with this rude, hilarious, charismatic show. At least you don't have maggots in your scrotum.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Snark and salvation"