“The Book of Mormon,” a crazed satire from the irreverent minds of the creators of “South Park” and one of the writers of “Avenue Q,” is a splendid example of just how far the American musical has drifted.
Had the revered composers of shows we now consider to be part of the “golden age” of musicals peered into the future and seen what was coming — an international hit that mocks religion and the conventions of musical theater with jokes about AIDS, female circumcision, dysentery and African poverty — their fastidious minds would have viewed it as a grotesque nightmare.
But who cares, really? We are now in the postmodern era of Broadway musicals, which means we see shows full of irony-drenched humor and calculated irreverence.
The road company currently encamped at the Music Hall equals the quality of the Broadway production I saw a few years ago. The performances are uniformly excellent — particularly Billy Harrigan Tighe as Elder Price, a young missionary who dreams of a version of paradise that looks a lot like Orlando, Fla., and A.J. Holmes as Elder Cunningham, who is into “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and “The Lord of the Rings” much more than the Book of Mormon, which he has never actually read.
The show has a script, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, who depict a sequence of absurd events after the two young Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda to convert souls. Once there, they discover a world rife with superstition, ignorance and violence and people with little interest in a brand of theology invented by white Americans in the 19th century.
Ultimately, though, Elder Cunningham is able to draw converts by inventing a religious narrative that is basically a science-fiction mashup with some of his own wild embellishments. No-holds-barred satire is gleefully offensive to a range of politically correct viewpoints, but the depiction of black Africans as gullible primitives bothered me the first time I saw the show, and it still does.
The cynical humor is countered to an extent by an optimistic view of how religious faith can actually improve the world, even if its practitioners don’t actually believe in God or the arcane pseudo-historical malarkey found in most sacred texts. This may be a case of the creators simply having it both ways, but it’s allowed them one of the surest signs of success in show business — the ability to laugh all the way to the bank.