As a first-time audience member for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “The Book of Mormon” (on Tuesday it opened a weeklong run at the Music Hall), I was prepared for an audacious and cheerfully profane satire of religion.
I knew in advance that the Tony-winning musical about Mormon missionaries in Africa used AIDS, female genital mutilation and scrotal maggots as recurring punchlines.
And I had heard from many sources that somehow Parker and Stone (creators of the animated “South Park”) got away with savaging the ridiculous premises of religious belief while, paradoxically, recognizing the emotional benefits of a faith-based life.
What I hadn’t anticipated is that “The Book of Mormon” would be the gayest musical ever.
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Parker and Stone take the implications of a lifestyle where young men are denied sexual outlets and forced to live together in smotheringly close proximity and gleefully run with them to their obvious conclusions.
Thus we have a flock of young missionaries (white shirts, black ties) singing in “Turn It Off” about compartmentalizing their doubts and physical impulses, all the while sashaying in a delicious parody of loose-jointed Broadway chorus-boy choreography.
Is “The Book of Mormon” offensive? Well, it should be but, not unlike certain political candidates, this musical’s embrace of the crude and the outrageous only attracts more converts.
And why not? The show is screamingly funny and blisteringly paced. The numbers, while musically generic, have some of the wittiest lyrics ever in a Broadway show.
And the cast now doing its thing at the Music Hall is astonishingly strong.
Top honors go to Gabe Gibbs and Cody Jamison Strand as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two 19-year-olds transported from Utah to Uganda.
Gibbs’ Elder Price is a Mormon Golden Boy of whom great things are expected. But he’s also spoiled and filled with his own dreams of glory, which entail converting the good people of Orlando, Fla. (his fondest memory is of a family vacation to that peninsular paradise). His powers of self-delusion are impressive.
Strand’s Elder Cunningham, on the other hand, is a rotund idiot, a pop-culture-crazy kid who mixes Mormon theology with big dollops of J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas. He’s like a giant infant who can’t help inventing stories, and when he dances he channels the awesome body language of John Belushi and Jack Black.
They get strong support, particularly from Daxton Bloomquist as their missionary leader, Elder McKinley, whose efforts to tamp down his sexual impulses are hilarious (and maybe a little heartbreaking).
And then there’s Bryce Charles, as the daughter of the village chief, whose vocal pyrotechnics blew the audience out of their seats. It’s a sign of the tremendous depth of this ensemble that Charles is an understudy filling in on opening night for another actress.
It’s hard to pin down the weird alchemy that allows “The Book of Mormon” to get away with all that it does. Perhaps it’s because beneath the snark there’s also a fair amount of heart.