Midway through the second act of “Book of Mormon,” one of the young, squeaky clean teen missionaries who has been sent to Uganda to convert the natives to the ways of the Latter-Day Saints launches into one of the best songs in the show; “I Believe.” In it, Elder Price (Liam Tobin) recites the litany of things he is sure of with a renewed enthusiasm and faith, after a rough few days trying to bring new Mormons into the fold. He sings with wide-eyed fervor about ancient Jews sailing to America; the real Garden of Eden, located in Jackson County, Missouri; and the promise of receiving his own planet when he gets to heaven. Swaying back and forth like an evangelical at a revival meeting, he tries to infuse the local warlord, General Buttf*cking Naked, with the holy spirit of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. For his trouble, Elder Price has a copy of the Book of Mormon shoved very far into his digestive tract, which we see in a graphic x-ray in the next scene.
If this sounds ridiculous, sacrilegious, profane, offensive or hysterical, you are right on all counts. That’s the genius of a Broadway show created by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone — the masters of going much too far, as clearly seen in their other R-rated TV shows, movies and musicals “South Park,” and “Avenue Q.” The winner of nine Tony Awards, “Book of Mormon” is in Milwaukee through January 6 — its second run in three years at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Here are a few of the reasons I believe some of you should snap up the few tickets that are left and go see it:
It’s original. A long ways from musical versions of popular movies (“School of Rock,” “Mean Girls,” “Legally Blonde,” “Footloose,” “Spongebob Squarepants,” the list goes on. . .) “Book of Mormon” has a completely fresh story and characters. It wasn’t designed to sell merch or be a star vehicle, and it doesn’t need crazy special effects, recycled pop hits, or video to make it interesting. It’s actually a classic buddy comedy/fish out of water story about a mismatched pair of Mormon missionaries sent on a difficult quest. They both grow and change over the course of the show and along the way there are some fairly serious ideas about hubris, entitlement, the pitfalls of organized religion, the fetishization of Africa and its people by white culture, the power of storytelling and the condemnation of a vicious patriarchy intent on female genital mutilation.
The book is clever and very, very funny. All of those big themes are packaged in an outrageous, over-the-top, going-for-every-laugh-they-can-find script that leaves nothing sacred. Younger audiences may not get every pop culture reference in the 2011 show, but dancing Starbucks coffee cups in the spooky Mormon version of hell will always be funny, as will the nervous anticipation of two awkward teens singing about baptism, in a duet bathed in sexual innuendo.
It’s actually a great musical. With overt nods to songs from “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I,” and especially “The Lion King,” the songs in “Book of Mormon” are solid. Ballads, a love duet, bouncy ensemble numbers, traditional showstoppers and catchy earworms are all in the mix. The artificially exuberant tune “Turn it Off” — about the Mormon method of repressing all your fears and doubts — morphs from a feel-good song into a full on Broadway chorus number, complete with tap dancing and pink sequined costumes. And the jazzy “All American Prophet” sounds like a great mash-up between “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and a really good School House Rock episode. There’s a reason that the cast recording won a Grammy and climbed into the top ten on the Billboard charts.
It’s the best kind of satire. Everything in the show is turned up to 11. Every character is based on a silly stereotype and every institution is flawed, so it’s okay to laugh at everything. The truths are covered in a hard candy shell so there aren’t good guys and bad guys — there are just human foibles on display, to be recognized and delighted in rather than simply condemned.
It celebrates nerds. You don’t have to be a nerd to love “Book of Mormon,” but it helps. There are lots of references to “Star Wars” and “The Hobbit” that make the show funnier if you have also, at some point in your past, danced with Ewoks. And the real hero of the show — the one who gets the girl and saves the day — is Elder Cunningham, the underdog (played here by the truly gifted Conner Peirson). Socially awkward, overweight and bespectacled, practically friendless and branded a screw-up from an early age, his ultra-nerd powers and nervous habit of making things up literally save the village from the clutches of the heavily armed warlords. Let’s hear it for the guy who’s more Chris Farley than Chris Pratt, but has the courage to “Man Up” and get the job done after all.
It will probably shock you. The “South Park” and “Avenue Q” guys have made their careers (and millions of dollars) by creating characters that do and say things that push the envelope — or sometimes blow it up entirely. Even if you’re pretty jaded, you’ll probably raise an eyebrow when you see Jesus wearing pointy, strap-on phallus; a chorus acting out a jaunty song about dysentery; a stuffed frog having sex with a man’s face that’s been turned into a large clitoris; and characters talking casually about raping babies to cure their AIDS. The shock is part of the fun.
It’s not for everyone. Each time I’ve seen “Book of Mormon” people in the audience have walked out of the show, offended by its content. Presumably they didn’t know what it was about and certainly didn’t anticipate the tone that the musical would take. If f-bombs, simulated fellatio, or jokes about Jeffrey Dahmer make you uncomfortable, please don’t go. If you will be put-off by song that includes choruses of “f*ck you God,” then save your money and wait until “Little Mermaid” comes to town. Yes, the show won lots of awards, and deservedly so, but it’s not something your very religious grandmother is going to enjoy. And that’s fine. There are lots of other people who will be interested in taking her ticket.