Monday, April 4, 2011

Theater Review: The Book of Mormon

South Park and Avenue Q Creators Convert Their Attention to the Mormons, and Heaven Help Us, It’s Funny
By Lauren Yarger
The crass humor of TV’s South Park and Broadway’s Avenue Q combine to resurrect a rare thing on the Great White Way lately – a really funny original musical -- with The Book of Mormon.

Reverent it’s not, despite the stained glass and temple-like trim on the proscenium (Scott Pask, set design) and if you are a Mormon, you will be offended, but the show isn’t the total Mormon or religion-bashing fest it could have been, given the kind of really crude humor of which Trey Parker (co-director with Casey Nicholaw, who also chorepgraphs), Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, writers of the book, music and lyrics, are capable. They take some shots, and cross the line of decency a few times, but mostly, they have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The opening number, in which a group of Mormons train in what to say as they ring doorbells to share their message is a hoot. The squeaky-clean, always smiling, shirt-and-tie-attired “elders” excitedly wait to hear where they will be sent on their required two-year mission experience (costume designs are by Ann Roth). Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), a sort of superstar Mormon, prays that God will send him to his favorite place in the world – Orlando -- but instead, finds himself on his way to a village in Uganda.

Worse, he finds himself paired with Elder Cunningham (a riotously funny Josh Gad) who isn’t a superstar Mormon. In fact, he’s a super needy, super nerdy and has a problem with telling lies. With his over-the-top, hyena-sounding chortle that makes you laugh each time he does, you can’t help but guiltily feel Elder Cunningham’s pain if you’re a Christian. You’ve met this guy at some church, Christian camp or youth group. He’s the one you desperately want to avoid because he’s so socially awkward and annoying while wanting to be your best friend, but at some point, since you’re a Christian, you ask, “What would Jesus do?” and you force yourself to be friendly. Come on, admit it. You know him…. Gad plays him to perfection.

The missions partners throw themselves into the work of converting the Africans, but the villagers have heard it all before. Missionaries come and go without really making a difference. What they really need help with, Nabulungi (Nikki M. James) tells them, is resisting the General (Brian Tyree Henry), who rules the village and who has ordered all virgin women to be circumcised (as is practiced in many African/Muslim nations).

Price, discouraged after not being able to influence the General, eventually decides to leave and Cunningham, fueled by Nabulungi’s belief that Mormonism might indeed hold some hope and her promise to make the villagers listen, agrees to stay and tell some of the stories. There’s one problem. He hasn’t actually read the Book of Mormon, so he uses his gift for stretching the truth to enhance it with some help from the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" sagas he loves so much to give the people what they want to hear.

Soon, baptismal waters are splashing and the Mormon President comes to commend the elders in person. The villagers welcome the respected Mormon leader with a theatrical presentation depicting the history of the founding of the religion as they understand it from Cunningham’s stories. This warped “Small-House-of-Uncle-Thomas-like” number complete with Joseph Smith, the golden plates of the Book of Mormon and Yoda, among other characters, is one of the funniest elements of the show.

Now, before you get the impression that this show is all fun, and appropriate for anyone, let’s talk about where the line may get crossed for you. As I have said, as a Mormon, you will be offended. The religion’s history is featured in a mocking way. In addition, Mormons in general are depicted as being oblivious to needs of others and incapable of facing truth in their own lives when it seems unpleasant. A whole song “Turn it Off” suggests that they turn off any less-than-happy thoughts like a light switch, including those about an abusive parent, a sibling with cancer or homosexual feelings. Elder McKinley (Rory O’Malley) obviously is repressing his gay desires throughout the show.

There’s also a musical number depicting “Spooky Mormon Hell” where they all fear they will go for having bad thoughts, or for committing a sin like stealing a donut.

In addition:
• Jesus is depicted as a blond who calls Cunningham a derogatory name. Never would happen.
• The crucifixion is depicted in a song as an example of “manning up.” It’s difficult to enjoy Christ’s suffering and the meaning behind it categorized this way.
• The villagers have an expression they use (think “Hakuna Matada” from the Lion King) when things don’t go the way they had planned. Translated, however, it means “F*** you, God.” This number goes on for quite a while with the ensemble singing this and gesturing with their middle fingers up to the heavens. Sorry, this isn’t funny in any language.

So while this is a very funny show, with excellent choreography, catchy tunes and two terrific leads (Rannells has a great singing voice and look for Gad to get a Tony nod), it’s not going to be for everyone.

I laughed a lot and before this show, would not have believed I could enjoy someone’s infestation by maggots, which the poor village doctor (Michael James Scott) sings about throughout the show, but then I have a sort-of-out-there sense of humor. I also was offended, particularly during the “F*** You, God” number, but I hardly went expecting this show to be a positive comment on Mormonism or religion. Truthfully, it wasn’t as scathing as I expected, knowing the style of the creators and being aware of an anti-Mormon sentiment in the Broadway community following the Proposition 8 vote in California and given growing anti-Christian/religion sentiment in today’s culture.

Join the flock at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th St., NYC Tickets are available at http://www.givenik.com/show_info.php/Masterworks/292/individual.

Christians might also like to know (in addition to the information already discussed):
• Show posts a Mature advisory
• Language
• We see a villager murdered
• Sexual dialogue
• Sexual moves

No comments:

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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