Sunday, March 13, 2011

NYC Theatre: Book of Mormon

As we can plainly see, my grand plan to start updating on Sundays and Wednesdays hasn't quite worked out. But this week was madness; I'm apartment hunting and it's eating up all of my spare time as well as my sanity. I think we'll stick to this schedule for now until I get back to something like regularity!

So let's see, where were we? Oh, right:

As a friend was telling me this afternoon over coffee and sinfully delicious Luscious Lemon Mousseline at Amy's Bread, I'm apparently the only person on the planet who didn't like this play. Including Jon Stewart, who calls it "so good it makes me fucking angry" in his review/interview, from which the photo below is taken. But saying that I didn't like it isn't quite accurate; I thought it was fine. Entertaining, even. I laughed! But it honestly felt like a really long episode of South Park.

(photo from The Daily Show; Jon Stewart interviews Trey Parker and Matt Stone)

With good reason, of course. If you don't know a thing about this show, Book of Mormon is by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who frequently imbue the essence of musical theater into their works, from Cannibal! The Musical to Team America. Another notable (and obvious contributor) is Avenue Q's composer/lyricist, Tony Lopez. Although (full disclosure) I've never been the hugest fan of Avenue Q (though I liked it better than this), I do like South Park (and Family Guy, and currently Archer). That's not the problem. But I could do without 2.5 hours of it. Yes, 2.5 hours--of content that felt like it was written to fill only about 22 minutes, but stretched out into a full-length production. While it was funny, it could also be gratuitous and a little too irreverent for my tastes.

The boys that I went with loved the show far more than our female companion and I did. They thought it was the best thing they'd seen on Broadway in a really long time. The girl and I thought it was 150 minutes of jokes about sex, poop, poverty and religion. Which all have their place in comedy, of course. It's just not what I'd call "good" theatre. Sadly, the audience with whom we saw the show--a packed house, even on a Wednesday night while the show was in previews--seemed to agree with the boys. Somehow, a raucous young crowd seemed to find their way to the theater to hoot, holler, bellow and catcall at every punchline. They gave it a standing ovation. I suppose that says something in and of itself for this show: It's potentially bringing theater to new audiences. It's a decent, casual date night that the boyfriend or hubby won't whine about. If they're like my guy friends, they will even look forward to going back a second time so that they can more concretely memorize all of the grossest lines.

So no, it's not that the play doesn't have its place. My complaint is just that the play doesn't seem to be put in its place; satire is being conflated with substance, a pairing that does often but does not exclusively go hand in hand. Without a memorable tune or relateable character, the show is carried sheerly by its fearlessness to make every raunchy joke and stoop to every stereotype. True, the core message of the show is a rather valid one about metaphor and making your own meaning in life--which might have been what surprised me the most. An additional bonus is that most of the costumes, lighting, sound and staging were spot-on. And lead Andrew Rannells (below) can belt the hell out of every number; he can almost convince you that the music and lyrics are actually good, when they seemed at first pass to be fairly forgettable and rote.

(photo from

The premise is as such: Two Mormon missionaries are assigned to complete two years of evangelizing in Uganda, Africa. The region has its own Mormon outpost, but none of the missionaries have been able to successfully convert any of the locals or complete a baptism. They only have a short time to prove their mission isn't fruitless as they are under threat of being shut down, leaving the people of this fictional village to brutal guerrilla warfare and despair. Can one promising, ambitious young Mormon by the name of Elder Price save the day? Or will he be stymied by hubris, doubt and one fat, foolish partner who doesn't even know the true meaning of Latter Day Saints? I won't spoil the ending for you, but let's just say it's not exactly what you might expect--although it does pay a decent homage to religion in general without being too cruel.

I almost which it had been a touch snippier, a tad more intellectual, pithy, brief and brutal. Perhaps I'm spoiled by having just seen Roundabout Theater's The Importance of Being Earnest, but some snappy dialogue and fast pacing can go a long way, there's no need to slow things down onstage--unless you're making up for a lack of substance and stretching material thin to meet what you reckon is a common run time.

But it isn't jukebox theater at least, or the remake of a movie; it's new and people are paying to watch it, so I suppose I should shut my mouth and support the arts. I just wish that I felt like Book of Mormon could, with any seriousness or decency, be called art.

Maybe it's just all part of the craze of putting things into 3-D. And what's more 3-D than taking an animated show and putting it on Broadway? But I'd rather download the original South Park episode, "All About the Mormons," which has all the laughs neatly parceled and packaged in a concise and tolerable bundle; bigger, longer and uncut just doesn't work for me in the live theater setting. Not without the cunning and causticity to fulfill the threat, or promise, of South Park live and unbridled.

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