"Africa is NOTHING like The Lion King!" exclaims Elder Price in one of about a thousand funny moments in The Book of Mormon. And if there's one phrase that sums up the story of the Tony Award-winning, forever sold-out, wildly ingenious musical from the creators of South Park, that might be it especially when it's delivered by an actor covered in blood from an arbitrary murder by a warlord he'd just witnessed. Of course, we could also go with, "I Believe," the name of the central ballad in the show, because at the heart of Book of Mormon is the fundamental truth that people who believe in something are happier and better off, no matter how asinine their beliefs.
The central character of the tale, Elder Price (played in the national tour by the deftly comedic, big-voiced Gavin Creel who most recently played Claude in the Broadway cast of Hair), is a handsome nineteen-year-old over-achiever who's never done anything he wasn't successful at. He's sent out on his Mormon mission alongside the less achieving, comically awkward Elder Cunningham (played with infectious energy and total commitment by Jared Gertner) to a place he never thought he'd be: Uganda. What do these naive young men from Salt Lake City find when they arrive? An only slightly stylized (and South Park-ian) version of modern, war-torn Africa, replete with vicious warlords, hunger, abject poverty, systematic rape, genital mutilation, and widespread AIDS. And yes, it's still hilarious in the great, uncomfortable, Lenny Bruce-meets-Airplane sort of way that South Park has been all these years.
Part of what makes Book of Mormon so successful, apart from its fearlessness and truly contemporary dark humor, is that it is, through and through, an old-fashioned musical. Trey Parker's reverence for musical theater was apparent in the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, and the form here operates at its peak. (The hokiness of singing and dancing on stage is aided all the more by the gosh-golly earnestness natural to Mormons and their religion.) You have the big, earworm-y, ensemble opening number "Hello!" that sets up several characters as well as the format of a typical Mormon mission; you have the getting-on-the-road number that follows, "Two by Two," as the young Missionaries depart; you have soul-searching solo ballads like "I Believe," and "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," (a.k.a. Salt Lake City) which is sung by the character Nabalungi, played admirably and with terrific vocal chords by Samantha Marie Ware; and you have a big Act One closer, "Man Up," which is where Gertner gets to shine. And speaking of commitment, we can't neglect to mention the rollicking Act One number led by Elder McKinley (played with exuberant flounciness by Grey Henson), "Turn It Off," which celebrates Mormons' penchant for ignoring and suppressing bad thoughts and feelings, especially gay thoughts.
The music, overall, is terrific, with hummable melodies and tight lyrics by Parker, writing partner Matt Stone, and their collaborator Robert Lopez, best known for Avenue Q. And the sets for this tour are of Broadway caliber, and we never felt for a minute like anything had been half-assed, or that the cast was lesser than what's happening every night as we speak back in New York.
Many of the greatest pieces of musical theater of the last century (e.g. "On the Town," "Company," "A Chorus Line," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Falsettos") were great not only because they furthered and expanded the form, but because they spoke to their times, provoked audiences, and pushed people's buttons. The reason Book of Mormon will stand the test of time is because of how simultaneously offensive and inoffensive it manages to be as vulgar as it is, at its heart, sweet and how astoundingly hopeful it is when that final curtain falls. How do you find hope, or faith, in a place where human life has come to feel worthless? You'll have to see it and judge for yourself (maybe on the next national tour, if you don't already have tickets or don't want to suffer the cancellation line, the pre-show lottery, or the prices on craigslist). The show leaves us not laughing in mockery of all the silly things Mormons believe, but smiling at the fact that silly beliefs and far-fetched stories are all that many of us have to carry us through, no matter if it's Star Wars or the Old Testament, and that's okay. And hilarious.
Book of Mormon plays through December 30 at the Curran Theater. Tickets are no longer available, except from scalpers, but there is a pre-show lottery starting two hours before every performance at the Curran box office. A limited number of $29 tickets will be given out at random to those who enter, and they'll be given out 90 minutes before that performance. Cash only.