I didn’t enjoy The Book of Mormon, but judging from the things I’d heard about it and the huge critical and audience success of the Broadway production, I’d imagined I would. Well, the audience at the Fox Theatre on Thursday — packed at 100 percent capacity after performances were canceled for two nights in a row due to the ice — seemed happy enough. Watching The Book of Mormon is, I suppose, more pleasurable than sitting in stand-still traffic on the interstate for 13 hours, but my praise for it pretty much ends there. Ticket-holders who missed the two canceled performances due to the severe weather and can get their money back should count themselves lucky. (A make-up performance has been added for February 3.)
In the show, two new Mormon missionaries — the self-important, determined Elder Price (Mark Evans) and his incompetent, needy sidekick Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) — are given the difficult first mission assignment of two years in Uganda. Their scrubbed-clean Salt Lake City credulousness and optimism are pitted against the harsh realities and cynicism of a nightmarishly beleaguered village in the Third World.
I think critics are desperate for a musical that’s not The Lion King or Spiderman that will breathe some life, modernity and youth into the old-fashioned, dying art form that they love, and audiences with short attention spans are desperate not to be bored out of their minds at the theater.
In other words, both expectations and standards have gotten pretty low. The Book of Mormon has been a success, but success at this juncture and in this way doesn’t really comprise success at all. Take a few catchy tunes, add a wry wink for those who don’t like musicals, and throw in some “edgy” jokes (really just tired old music hall bawdry in a fancy new ironic wrapper), and voila: a hit. American audiences aren’t accustomed to seeing faith of any kind questioned or satirized, so a show that does so — even in a facile, superficial way — will seem innovative and smart.
I’m not sure how the Stepin-fetch-it jokes and minstrel routines at the show’s center passed muster in New York without much comment when the show opened, but there they are. The show even attempts to milk humor out of African misery: AIDS, poverty, rape, disease, war — all the most hilarious elements of life in the Third World are offered up for the delectation and amusement of primarily white, primarily wealthy audiences. Ha-ha-ha?
The show did have some enjoyable moments: the touring cast is very good, and I liked the send-ups of bloated Broadway conventions like the Small House of Uncle Thomas–style show-within-a-show and the big, dramatic pre-intermission-curtain medley.
I think the biggest joke of all, a genuinely funny one, of the meta Springtime for Hitler sort, has been played on the ticket-buying public by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the stoner creators of South Park who have made a hit musical out of The Book of Mormon. The Mormon church has even bought three pages of ads in the show’s program, encouraging people who have seen the show to go “read the book.” Parker and Stone aren’t just getting money from audiences; they’re even picking up a check from the Mormons now. Good one, guys.