It’s a little bit staggering to realize that South Park is 17 years and almost 250 episodes old. The boundary-pushing show is a veritable institution these days, and yet it’s managed to stay more or less fresh all that time. Some of that freshness comes from its absolutely unique production schedule, in which shows go from blank page to the airwaves in less than a week. Because of that quirk, no other narrative program on television can match its ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have somehow managed to keep alive the homemade, spontaneous tone and nothing-sacred audacity.
But because we’re so familiar with the foul-mouthed kids of South Park, it’s easy to forget that Parker and Stone are capable of more. In 2011, they more than proved that with The Book of Mormon, a bonafide Broadway musical smash to rival The Lion King and Wicked. Unlike those family-friendly shows, however, Mormon is ferociously profane and not for the easily-offended. Triangle audiences get their first look this week, when the touring company comes to the Durham Performing Arts Center.
In contrast to the inspired slapdash quality of the done-in-a-week television show, this musical came together over the course of four years and many developmental workshops. And it’s great to see Parker and Stone take on a long-form story and fleshed-out characters, not to mention collaborating with a first-rate Broadway composer in Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez. The result is somehow both screamingly outrageous and overwhelmingly heartfelt, a tough balancing act to pull off.
Their subject is The Church of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons. The show opens in Salt Lake City, with a gaggle of teenaged missionaries-in-training as they await their assignments. These very green youngsters are about to fly off to win converts in faraway countries with different cultures and languages. We focus on two of them, the mismatched pair of Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham. They’re a classic Abbott-and-Costello-style comedy team, with the earnest golden boy Price (a bugle-voiced Mark Evans) dismayed to be partnered with the energetic train-wreck Cunningham (a hilarious Christopher O’Neill, in full Kung Fu Panda mode). Their assignment takes them to war-torn Uganda, a far cry from Price’s dream destination of sunny Orlando.
The complications really begin when they arrive in an African village. This must be the worst place in the world: poverty, war, and disease are rampant, and the missionaries struggle in the face of the villagers’ disregard for what they offer. After all, what good is their Book against such worldly disaster? But thanks to Cunningham’s overactive imagination and the help of eager local girl Nabulungi (a luminous Samantha Marie Ware), they manage to overcome all obstacles and forge their own way. It is a Broadway musical, after all – happy endings are a must.
And that’s really where The Book of Mormon shines. Its plot mechanism is as old as the hills, and its shock value wears off after the fiftieth “#@$%,” but this is a musical in love with classic musicals. You can certainly enjoy it if you’ve never seen The King and I or The Pajama Game or Wicked or The Lion King, but knowing those shows makes you appreciate Mormon’s pitch-perfect takeoffs even more (Parker was clearly a High School Musical Theatre Nerd of the first order). And sometimes the creators even bring their own style to the fore, as in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” a dream sequence set in a decidedly South-Parky version of the afterlife.
In the end, it’s The Book of Mormon’s worldview that makes it unmistakably a Parker-and-Stone piece. They love to mock religious doctrine – the rituals and dogma – while retaining real affection for religious feeling. The show comes down squarely on the side of religion as family and community, with little sympathy for those who worship holy books more than good people.
This isn’t a show full of deep characterization or amazing writing, but it has heart and laughs to spare. And it’s all sparklingly conveyed by a bang-up production and cast. Some touring productions cheap out the original Broadway version, but this one is almost identical to what you’d see in Manhattan. The cast is also uniformly excellent, singing the roof off the place. The only trouble is that you might have to wait until their next visit to get a ticket for this worldwide hit!