The Book of Mormon: No longer subversive, but still amuses

The touring Broadway musical tells a very American story of missionaries, prophets and diarrhea jokes.

The Book of Mormon Company - Photo by Joan Marcus
The Book of Mormon Company. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Book of Mormon tells a very American story of hapless missionaries sent to Uganda to convert the locals to be followers of an “all-American prophet, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed voice of God.”

The boys encounter a reluctant audience, as the villagers are already beset by famine, disease and a one-eyed local warlord. Their situation worsens when one of their number, the schlubby Elder Arnold Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), embroiders the Mormon scriptures for the villagers, inserting references to the Death Star, AIDS and Mordor.

The warlord and Mormon authorities alike are predictably dismayed.

This is the national tour version of the Broadway show, and as you’d expect it maintains the high standard that made the original a success.

The standouts among the cast are Strand and Candace Quarrels as Nabulungi, his first Ugandan convert. Both have the triple-threat chops of singer, dancer and actor, as well as a hammy charisma that’s well-suited to this show’s broad comedy.

Candace Quarrels & Cody Jamison Strand in The Book of Mormon, Photo: Joan Marcus
Candace Quarrels & Cody Jamison Strand sing a duet in The Book of Mormon, Photo by Joan Marcus

The staging had the practical simplicity of a touring show, with the stage being framed by a false proscenium that evokes the famed Salt Lake Temple.

In truth, the set looked a little beat-up—you could see patches in several places and wrinkles in the backdrops. The number of small rolling set pieces and painted backdrops evoked a certain high-school musical chic.

Post-modern humour and poop jokes

The music takes few risks, and borrows heavily from Broadway tradition.

There are sly nods to a number of other popular musicals. The villagers sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai”, which is an X-rated take on The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata”. “All-American Prophet” evokes Jesus Christ Superstar. When Quarrels sings “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”, we are reminded of the classic I-want song “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid

The Broadway mega-hit was written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez, co-creator of the R-rated musical Avenue Q.

This show has all the hallmarks of Parker and Stone’s previous work—satirizing American conservatism, postmodern humour and poop jokes.

The jokes land fast and furious, and the audience seemed delighted. Those familiar with the creators’ previous projects won't be surprised to find them poking fun at female circumcision, pedophilia and AIDS.

The high point of the low comedy is when the Ugandan villagers present their interpretation of Arnold’s re-interpretation of Mormon doctrine as a play-within-a-play.

Stuck in middle-school with Tarantino

Parker and Stone remind me increasingly of Quentin Tarantino—they’re all heroes to a certain kind of Gen-X men.

Their early work was shocking and subversive. Their later work aspires to that, but feels stalled in juvenilia and out-of-touch. For example, the show frequently depicts the African characters as dumb, such as when Nabulungi believes that she’s sending text messages using a typewriter. This schtick is not only unfunny, but also punches down.

The Book of Mormon offers a familiar critique of blind faith and orthodoxy. It mocks zany tales from scripture and unflinching zealotry, but those traits are found in all religions.

Universality can be a feature, but here it feels lazy. The creators don’t want to wrestle with the actual particulars of Mormon doctrine—polygamy, institutionalized racism and posthumous baptism, to name a few.

I also wondered about how in-on-the-joke we Canadians are. Statistics Canada tells me that only 0.6% of British Columbians are Mormons.

Halfway through the first act, two young missionaries get ready for bed. They take off their familiar white shirts and black tie and pants, revealing their temple garments—long underwear mandated by the the Latter Day Saint movement.

I looked around at my fellow theatre-goers. Was this meant to be funny? Do most people even know what temple garments are? The satire in The Book of Mormon isn’t especially cutting, but it felt further blunted by our collective unfamiliarity with this American sect.

In the bathroom at intermission, I overheard a conversation among three men in their twenties. All three of them had seen the show before, and were enjoying seeing it again. Maybe it’s foolish to ask Parker and Stone to grow up. We’ll always need jesters with a fart joke at the ready.

The Book of Mormon continues its run at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through September 4, 2016. Tickets and more information

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