Saturday, May 21, 2011

POPped Review: 'The Book of Mormon' on Broadway



Let me be honest.  I don’t care for musicals.  Most of them seem silly to me.  I have not seen Cats in four different cities.  I also don’t care for South Park.  Not a fan of the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  (I have no opinion of Avenue Q by co-writer Robert Lopez).  But for some reason, I decided to see The Book of Mormon musical on a recent trip to Manhattan.  See, I’m a Mormon and former missionary.  So, I was curious.


Don’t get me wrong.  I knew what I was in for.  I saw Team America: World Police (on someone else’s TV).  I have seen one South Park episode (actually the one about Mormons).  I also read the disclaimer outside the theatre that said the language may be offensive to some viewers.  And the play obviously makes fun of the Mormon religion (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints).

Robin Williams, Paul Guilfoyle, Drew Barrymore
Image:ReevesReel/POParitaville

I went on a good night, too. I spotted Joel McHale and Jimmy Kimmell outside the theatre. Inside, among my fellow audience members, were Julie Bowen, Ty Burell, and Eric Stonestreet from ABC’s Modern Family.  Making my way back to my seat after intermission, I had to move past Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore who were having a conversation with Robin Williams.  I believe I even touched Drew Barrymore.

Anyway, were was I?  It became pretty obvious early in the show that it wasn’t necessarily making fun of the Mormons.  It was actually making fun of Broadway musicals.  Much like Spamalot and The Producers.  Only much more so.  The singing and dancing are way over the top, the sets outrageous, and the music very catchy.  And there are lots of jazz hands.  It’s very much a Broadway musical as evidenced by the acting and the quality of the production.  And much like the last Star Trek movie, I expected to hate it.  I expected to be offended.  I expected to not be entertained.

But you know what disappointed me the most?  I flippin’ * liked it.  I actually went back after intermission.  And sat down.  And gave those bastards a standing ovation.

Here’s why: it’s a good show.  Ignoring the subject matter, it’s a really well written, well performed, well choreographed, and well directed musical.  Most people, though, will get a kick out of the subject matter.  It’s fun to make fun of people that are different.  Especially if their beliefs are strange and silly.

 >>>>some spoilers<<<<


Josh Gad - (playbill.com)
Andrew Rannells - (dailyactor.com)

This very upbeat story begins with a group of male missionaries (Elders) in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) – all hoping to be sent some place exciting.  Two of them – Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), an eager over-achiever and his companion Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), a socially inept geek – get assigned to Uganda.  Elder Price had hoped to be sent to Orlando.  Elder Cunningham is just thrilled to have a friend who has to always be with him (missionary companions must always stay together).  Once in Africa, the musical borrows heavily from another musical – The Lion King.  Honestly that’s about the only reference to other musicals that I got.  Not caring for musicals, I don’t know much about them.  But I did see the Disney movie.  And they outright mention that musical several times.  “Africa is nothing like The Lion King,” laments Elder Price.


There are other pop cultural references as well.  Since Elder Cunningham is a science fiction fan, there are many references to Star Trek, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  Particularly when he is teaching the Ugandan villagers about the Church.  My favorite line of the play describes The Book of Mormon itself as part three of the Bible (the Old and New Testaments being part one and two).  “So, you’re saying that the Bible is a trilogy and The Book of Mormon is Return of the Jedi?”

'The Book of Mormon' Original Broadway Cast

The musical numbers are all very memorable if not all entirely clean.  Just when you're feeling uplifted from something like “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”, you're confronted with  “Hasa Diga Eebowai”,which roughly translates to “F*** You, God”.  Upon learning the meaning of this phrase, Elder Cunningham - who had been enthusiastically singing with the villagers - exclaims, "Oh my gosh, I said it, like, 13 times!"

The performances are superb, if a little over-the-top.  The singing is fantastic and the dancing is wonderful.  These are definitely Broadway caliber performances.  Rannells is obviously a trained dancer. And despite his nerdy appearance Gad can really sing.

(AP Photo/PMK, Melissa Hamburg)
I should also mention the lead actress/Ugandan.  Nikki M. James as Nabulungi is so sweet and innocent you wonder what she's doing in this show.  You truly feel for her and her quest for a better life amidst all the danger in her village.  Her moving solo, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (Salt Lake City), is so full of hope and promise you’re sure something bad is going to happen to her.

And that's the essence of the incongruity in this show.  It's at one moment sweet and the next shocking.  Amazingly, as edgy and adult as this show is, it is also very tender and thought-provoking.  In the middle of all the satire and ridicule there is a smart examination of the trials of faith.  Is it enough to just believe or does there need to be more? 

Which leads to some of the factual errors in the show.  Despite what seems like a decent amount of research into the teachings of the Mormon church and their more unusual beliefs, the playwrights (Parker, Stone and Lopez) still got a few things wrong.  One of the better songs in the show, “I Believe”, is based on a slightly false premise.  You rarely hear a Mormon say that they "believe" in something.  They will usually say that they "know".  Like in, "I know this church is true."  Or, "I know Jesus Christ died for our sins."  Good song, though.

The missionaries in this play studied for 3 months in the MTC before they found out where they would serve the rest of their mission.  While this served to set up a funny, disappointed scene with Elder Price (who wanted to go to Orlando), that's not the way it works.  One only studies for 2 months if going to a foreign-speaking mission – in which time he learns the language of the country he is going to – and he knows before he leaves home which country he will serve in.  English-speaking missionaries only study for 3 weeks.

Also, I have never, in the 30 years that I've been a member, ever heard a Mormon say, "Praise Christ."  Nor have they mentioned having the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”. 

>>>>end of spoilers<<<<
But maybe I’m taking this way too seriously.  This is a satire after all.  Perhaps they’re making fun of Mormon stereotypes.  This show certainly stereotypes Africans, science fiction fans, and Broadway.   That's probably what bothered me the most while watching this play.  I felt the audience missed the "point" of the story because they were too busy laughing at the crazy Mormons.

This show is definitely not for everyone, but I think it may be for more Mormons than one might expect.  It appeals to those that like the typical South Park humor.  It can appeal to those that are able to laugh at themselves and aren’t easily offended.  This is true for any religious group as this play pretty much lampoons religion in general. 

If you want to see a really good Broadway show with typical Broadway numbers and wonderful performances I highly recommend The Book of Mormon (this should get me called into the Bishop's office).  But don't go looking to learn more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  For that, I recommend talking to an actual Mormon, a Mormon missionary or try the link below.  Or better yet, read the book.



The Book of Mormon is currently playing at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York City and has received 14 Tony award nominations.  The production will begin a North American tour this summer.    For tickets go to www.bookofmormonbroadway.com


Along with a North American tour, The Book of Mormon will be headed to the U.K.  Keep up with the U.K. tour on the BOM-uberfan site www.thebookofmormonmusical.co.uk.  Tickets for the U.K. production can be purchased at www.cheaptheatretickets.com/the-book-of-mormon/

For information on the actual Book of Mormon visit www.mormon.org**



* Mormon swear word commonly used in Utah


Approached at your door by
ReevesReel














**Editors Comment - Please note that this review is intended to entertain and inform our readers about the Broadway musical 'The Book of Mormon' through the eyes of one member of The POP Patrol.  POParitaville, it's writers and advertisers in no way encourages recruitment, baptism, personality tests, human sacrifice or tribal dances in the nude for one religion over another.  


Jungle Jesse
POParitaville
Editor In Chief

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