Holy ... well, holy I don't know what. Or should I be saying unholy?
I just saw “The Book of Mormon,” a musical that lampoons and yet ends up embracing religious belief, and my brain is scrambled.
I caught myself laughing at things I hope I don't get struck by a lightning bolt for laughing at.
This best-musical Tony winner by the writers of “South Park” (Trey Parker, Matt Stone) and “Avenue Q” (Robert Lopez) is as profane and hilarious and witty and totally irreverent as you'd expect from guys who make fun of absolutely everything in the bluest language imaginable.
The story centers on two eager young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda to convert the natives, but who are unprepared for the poverty, starvation, rampant HIV and bloodthirsty warlord they find when they arrive.
Elder Price (Nic Rouleau) and Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes) are totally mismatched. Price is the poster boy of perkiness, who was sure Heavenly Father would hear his prayers and he'd be posted to Orlando. Instead he's stuck with Cunningham, a friendless social misfit who has a tendency to make things up. A lot.
Two elements that makes the show great: an upbeat, singable score that packs in one big production number after another, and snazzy, energetic choreography by Casey Nicholaw, who co-directed the show with Parker. The singer-dancers are first-rate, both the chorus of clean-cut missionaries and the ensemble of Ugandans.
What kept me going was the writers' obvious love for the form and traditions of musical theater. The show manages to celebrate, and simultaneously poke fun at, classic musicals. A sendoff at the airport uses a jungle cry spoofing “The Lion King.” “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day” evokes “Annie.” An improvised play within the play, which the Africans put on for visiting Mormon officials, echoes a scene from “The King and I.” “The Sound of Music,” “A Chorus Line,” “Les Miz” and maybe others I missed also got a nod.
Solos are equally entertaining and effective. Camille Eanga-Selenge, as a pretty young Ugandan woman who finds hope in the missionaries' message, evokes a beautiful dream of a better life in Utah, singing “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” Gorgeous vocals. Holmes crowns the first act with “Man Up,” a hilarious number in which he decides he has to rise to the occasion when his mentor, Price, falters.
And when Rouleau belts out “I Believe,” listing the things “a Mormon just believes,” he sings with such force and sincerity you have no doubt that he does.
Fine character acting comes from David Aron Damane as the scary warlord, Pierce Cassedy as a missionary who has taught himself to turn off his homosexuality “like a light switch” (well, not entirely), and somebody who plays a lighted-up Jesus in a way that made me think of George Carlin. Funny, funny stuff.
Parker, Stone and Lopez crowd so many jokes and references into the lyrics and one-liners that you could see this show more than once and not catch all the hilarious and witty fly-bys. Which might explain the packed house on opening night Saturday, along with the rave reviews this show gets everywhere it goes. (Seats are still available, an OPA spokeswoman said.) Just don't bring the kids. There are lyrics, characters' names and some digestive-system ailments that can't be printed in a family newspaper.
“Mormon” has a lot of fun poking fun at the history and teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, only to conclude that all religions have their share of practices, stories and beliefs that others would find strange.
And funny. God forgive me, I can't remember the last time I laughed that much at a musical.