arts 03.8.11

The Book of Mormon
Every Person in New York

They're wrong about one thing: God's favorite musical is still Guys and Dolls.

But Trey Parker and Matt Stone get just about everything else right in The Book of Mormon, the new musical now in previews at the O'Neill (opening March 24th). And the profane, blasphemous, take-no-prisoners sensibility of the South Park guys results in a lifesaving jolt to an art form that in recent years has felt distinctly timid and shopworn.

There was never a question whether the show would be funny (we're hard-pressed to think of a funnier Broadway musical), only whether they could sustain it over the course of an evening in the theater—keep in mind that South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut clocks in at 81 minutes. But with the help of Avenue Q's Robert Lopez (contributing to the book, music, and lyrics) and Casey Nicholaw, co-directing with Parker, the answer is yes.

What gives this show its sweet spot, though, is something quite different from the spitballing that Parker and Stone have made their life's calling. The stroke of genius was the realization that those troupes of made-in-Utah young men—earnest, black-and-white-clad, permanently-smiling—have more in common than meets the eye with those troupes of smiling, tap-dancing, possibly corn-fed Broadway chorus boys. Let's just put it this way: beneath the colorless Mormon uniforms, there are spangles waiting to hook up with the nearest marabou, mmkay?

The story follows two Elders (Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, both excellent) on their two-year mission from Salt Lake City to, as luck would have it, Uganda. It should be an omen, probably, that their airport gate—Z62—is as far from the popular routes (Stockholm, say, or Orlando) as airport geography allows.

Once they've arrived at the village where they're to perform their missionary work (alongside a group of fellow Mormons), the rest of the show plays out on two, interweaving levels.

The missionaries must teach the Book of Mormon to people whose way of dealing with hunger, disease, and violence is expressed in the uproarious number "**** You, God."

And the young men must learn to resolve the conflict between what they've been carefully taught and the messy world, without and within.

Musically, it's pastiche of a high order. "Turn It Off," the song which explains how the Mormons deal with anything not by The Book, is a jaunty, Frank Loesser-style tune. Ugandan love interest Nabalungi (the fetching Nikki M. James), sings a "Somewhere That's Green" variation (Little Shop of Horrors), conjuring up the wonders of Salt Lake City. There are also references to The Lion King, The King and I, A Chorus Line, and the movie version of The Sound of Music (plus surely others we missed). But you don't need to be a musical theater geek to have a great time. Or a South Park fan, for that matter.

Whether that extends to actual Latter-day Saints members is a tougher call: the show does some clever and incisive deconstructing of Mormon history and doctrine. That said, the point of the evening isn't Mormon-bashing.

Instead, the chapter and verse being preached here is the sweetly old-fashioned notion about finding your own way, possibly your own crazy way, even if you started at Gate Z62, and even if believing in each other turns out to be all there is.

Where should I go to hear chamber music? Answer

Jason Polan started Every Person in New York in March of 2008. He plans on working on the project until it is finished. Look for Every Person in New York on Tuesdays in MUG and daily at Jason's site.

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