If any show could make the case that you can have fun with absolutely anything in the oft-painful run of human experience — AIDS, genocide, genital mutilation, poverty, religion, "The Lion King" — then that show is
But, as shrewder "South Park" fans understand, Parker and Stone built their career on their mastery of tone, and their seemingly innate ability to understand when to push the limits to the breaking point and when to dance deftly away from painful details. They have long forged material as sweet as it is sour, and, especially in their movies ("South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut"), embraced the traditions of the Broadway musical even as they turned its milquetoast romanticism on its head.
In many ways, "The Book of Mormon" is an intensification — a culmination, really — of what
"The Book of Mormon," which features not only the catchy songs of Robert Lopez (the opening doorbell number, "Hello," is a classic example) but also his clearly crucial help on the book, starts with a satirical, self-aware and dazzlingly self-confident comedic mind-set — honed and, crucially, licensed and secured in other media. But just as it starts to feel as if watching the "South Park" guys deconstruct the apparent illogicalities of Mormonism is starting to sound the same, one-sided note, Parker, Stone and Lopez engineer a very savvy twist in the narrative. This re-energizes the show early in the second act, focuses it more acutely on those "Avenue Q"-like themes of young people seeking out their purpose and propels it to a conclusion that leaves audience members feeling they've attended something weightier than a series of pointed laughs fired into a soft religious target.
By the end of a night more emotional than many will expect, the show is arguing the importance of finding a spiritual center, if not exactly embracing the doctrinal details of that most American of religions (and, as cooler heads may currently be observing in Salt Lake City, when you are the most American of religions, it could be seen as a badge of honor to be ridiculed on Broadway).
In many ways, the rich, liberal do-gooders of "We Are the World" (the object of a hilarious Act 2 takedown) come off worse than the collection of naive missionaries trying to save the world. And "The Book of Mormon" even makes a case that it takes those suffering real pain to understand the real role of religion in our lives. "South Park" was never friendly to pretentious baby boomers. Neither is its musical. Along the jolly way, "The Book of Mormon" throws in many inside jokes. A spoof Mormon re-enactment diorama (sourced in part, I suspect, on the reporting in Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven") is a nod to "Angels in America." A catchy, faux-African ditty, "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (you don't want to know the translation) is a hilariously profane takedown of the Disneyfied complacencies of "Hakuna Matata." And references to other Broadway musicals and stagings are sprinkled like little blessings throughout.
One can see the argument against this show — indeed, it plays out in your mind as you watch it. Some will find it juvenile. You could construct a case that it makes fun of real pain. You could build a better case that it has merely taken the over-familiar and pushed it further. But after you hold that trial in your head, between laughs, you ultimately end up dismissing the case. Casey Nicholaw, who directs and choreographs with the right note of apparent sincerity (Parker shares directing credit), was smart enough not to cast stars who would pull focus or undermine the crucial Everyman naivete of the two leads and the ensemble of missionaries. The clear, earnest tones of