No need to bone up on the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith before attending "The Book of Mormon" at the Pantages Theatre. Just know that this exceedingly naughty, though in the end disarmingly nice, show is devised by the minds behind "South Park" and that risqué "Sesame Street" for theater-loving adults, "Avenue Q."
In other words, leave the kids at home with a baby-sitter, or child-protective services might be knocking at your door.
Built for the irreverent Gen X faithful, all those aging slackers (myself among them) who get their news from Jon Stewart and their snarky giggles from the Onion, "The Book of Mormon" is their — our — musical.
Not just a thunderous Broadway hit, it's a flippant assertion of demographic power, the razzing voice of a generation. Take that, baby boomers, who naturally have responded as though the show was tailor-made for them. (But then who else can afford all those still-hot Broadway premium seats?)
To succumb to the scabrous comedy of the show's creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, one must first avoid taking offense at a musical that holds nothing sacred. Not Mormon theology. Not the dire state of an African village overwhelmed by poverty and AIDS. Not even the sensitivities of unsuspecting theater-goers curious about the 2011 best musical Tony winner but completely unprepared for just how profane 21st century Broadway can be. (One number, "Hasa Diga Eebowai," a jaunty expletive-laced kiss-off to the Almighty and a spoofy retort to "The Lion King's" "Hakuna Matata," should teach these innocents once and for all.)
This national tour production gets the job done, matching the stampeding verve, if not the granulated sharpness, of the original Broadway production. The chemistry of the leads, Gavin Creel as the proudly picture-perfect Elder Price, and Jared Gertner, as the chubby, chortling Elder Cunningham, is a little more predictable here. The odd couple contours of these mismatched Mormon missionaries given the booby prize of an assignment in Uganda are rendered rather straightforwardly.
By contrast, Andrew Rannells, who originated the role of Elder Price on Broadway, infused the character's cockiness with a surprising feyness, while Josh Gad, who set the mold for Elder Cunningham in New York, brought a natural sweetness to the sloppy shenanigans of a sidekick who steals the show.
Creel and Gertner stick more closely to the broad outlines of their roles, but the musical itself is so effectively wrought that it doesn't require special piquancy from its ensemble. Cheeky exuberance will do, and this company — under the joint direction of Casey Nicholaw, the man behind the show's snazzy choreography, and Parker — has it in spades.
Farcical cruising speed is reached immediately in the absolutely divine opening number, "Hello!", in which young Mormon missionaries with nary a hair out of place ring doorbells and sing about how the Book of Mormon can pave the way to eternal life.
Politely sharing scripture ("Did you know that Jesus/ Lived here in the U.S.A.?") as doors slam in their faces, these lads are almost too sweet for the mercilessness of the comic stage. Yet straightaway the song establishes the musical's giddy tone, a peculiarly winning mix of old-school Broadway pep, cartoon American naivete and slash-and-burn satire.
The score, an ebullient pastiche in which the authors of the show rifle through the American musical songbook on a sugar high, has a sophistication that is easily overlooked amid the hilarity. It's not that the music is particularly distinguished, but there's something utterly original in the way the playfully diabolic lyrics bask in the sunshiny Broadway sound (lushly drawn out by the orchestra under Stephen Oremus' music direction).
"Turn It Off," a tune extolling the many uses of repression, is made all the funnier for becoming an occasion for the tap dance bliss of Elder McKinley (Grey Henson), a Mormon missionary with a pesky attraction to men. "I Believe," a power anthem of the treacly modern-day sort, is given an acidulous twist by its rundown of some of the more controversial aspects of Mormon history. Was it "Spamalot" that last had us whistling this merrily to sacrilege? Sondheim this isn't, though not since "Sweeney Todd" has gallows humor been pulled off with such grinning impunity.
Of course religious intolerance and African suffering aren't funny subjects. AIDS jokes piling up one on top of another are cheap. Village leader Mafala Hatimbi (Kevin Mambo) is a font of them. But the actual target of "The Book of Mormon" is the attitude of average Americans — regular theater-going types, as it turns out — who never doubt the sanctity of their good intentions or the sincerity of their teary sentiments. When told that Uganda is in Africa, Elder Cunningham enthusiastically invokes "The Lion King." Warlords, dysentery and female circumcision come as a complete shock to him, and it's this provincial mentality that's the real butt of the joke.
Ultimately, however, the musical has more faith in Elder Cunningham's clownish waywardness than in Elder Price's bland ambition. It's Cunningham's penchant for fabricating stories, for mixing "The Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" with Holy Scripture, that wins over the village by making religion speak directly to practical needs as well as to mystical desires.
And he is rewarded for his efforts with the affectionate interest of the charming Nabulungi (irresistibly brought to life by Samantha Marie Ware, who is without doubt the production's breakout star). If the wise doofus doesn't exactly win the girl, at least he gets to baptize her in the show's most blasphemously entertaining number.
There have been complaints in some high-brow quarters that "The Book of Mormon" isn't radical enough, that it blunts its critique with an ending that tries to make nice and undo any offense. This is silly. It's a big, splashy musical, folks, not a manifesto for a cultural revolution. The zeitgeist gets skewered — and not a moment too soon — but from within the feel-good, hopelessly optimistic, never-going-to-change-all-that-much tradition of musical comedy.
Parker, Stone and Lopez are hell-bent on reenergizing the American musical with their wicked brand of comedy, but they are just as keen on paying homage to it. And nowhere do they succeed more vividly at both than in the "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" sequence, a fiendishly witty showstopper that is immeasurably enhanced by the outlandishness of the production's superb design team.
"The Book of Mormon" has an insult for everyone and more than enough entertainment to fill you with gratitude when all is said and done.
'The Book of Mormon'
Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends Nov. 25.
Tickets: Start at $35 (subject to change)
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
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