At first glance, The Book of Mormon which arrived at Place des Arts last week thanks to Evenko promotions is a send-up of a home grown, American made religion. But it is more than that. It is a refreshingly irreverent Broadway musical inspired by the gospel of South Park and at the same time it is also a subliminal meditation on faith and the awareness of the life of any lived religion. Behind the laughter it provokes is the nagging question:, what is faith and why do the faithful of any religion believe what they believe?
The show addresses the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism and lampoons the ability of people to cherry pick their beliefs. It is offensive as you might suspect. The very religion it satirizes, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, have taken an ad in the program urging the audience to reflect on their beliefs after they have seen the show by reading the Book of Mormon.
The musical opens with a spectacular tableau of the risen and ascended radioactive Jesus arriving in upstate New York to visit one of the lost tribes of Israel. That leads to a thumbnail sketch of the church history. Then a cast of clean cut all American boys sing the opening number, Hello and cheerfully convert usWhat follows are dazzling production numbers reminiscent of The Lion King, Wicked, The King and I, Jesus Christ Superstar and Chorus Line. Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone who wrote the wicked script have clearly been inspired by the best of Broadway.
The story moves into high gear when one of the young missionaries, Elder Price (Gavin Creel) has his faith shaken when he is paired with an obnoxious geek of a partner Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) and both are dispatched to Uganda to make converts, They arrive to discover crude pagan tribal rituals and a pointed contempt for missionaries expressed in rousing and no uncertain terms. In order to win souls, Elder Cunningham comes up with a silly and sacrilegious reinvention of the Book of Mormon which is tailor made to suit the triball concerns of the African villiage. Along the way there are jokes about AIDS, homosexuality, genital mutilation, racism, child abuse, but all woven so deftly into the script that only a prude could take offense. The production numbers are sensational. There is a show stopping dream sequence, “spooky Mormon Hell,” an uproarious show within a show “The small house of Uncle Thomas, ” an anthem of faith, “I Believem” and a though provoking dance routine and hymn to repression, “Turn it Off,” It is unfair to single anyone out in an ensemble as good as this one, but kudos must go to Richard Creed, the antics of Christopher John O’Neill, Alexandra Ncube, who plays Nabulungi and Stanley Wayne Mathis as the tribal leader Mafala. Scott Pask’s scenic design and Ann Roth’s costumes are breathtaking. The orchestra in the pit is live and the cast seems to be as big and as committed as the tabernacle choir.
I suspect even the Pope would approve.