Quite charming actually.
That was my first thought as I streamed, on auto-pilot, alongside a large, enthusiastic crowd into the warm air of downtown San Jose after the opening night of The Book of Mormon.
But this show is supposed to be daring, raunchy, and shocking.
It’s all of those things, alright, but it was the through-and-through likability of the two leads, and their resolute determination to make Africa a better place — one baptism at a time — that pleasantly caught me off guard.
This was my first time seeing Mormon, and given its reputation, I was expecting something far more cynical, perhaps even mean-spirited. There’s no question, this is a musical that’s not afraid to push boundaries (i.e. the parts involving babies and frogs), yet it does so in a way that makes you believe the writers (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone) have at least a tiny inkling of affection for their subject matter. Mind you, that doesn’t translate into Belief, or even granting a smidgen of Credibility, but that positive tone permeates the show, and makes the Mormon take-down even sweet at times; something that Richard Dawkins might glean when trying to apportion science-based perspectives on religion.
The Book of Mormon, of course, is a critique of the “All American” religion founded in upstate New York by “All American” prophet Joseph Smith in the ancient United States of America, circa 1830.
The musical’s structure is textbook Broadway: scenes with minimal dialog, followed by musical numbers, inter-cut with a few more lines of dialog, ending with rousing final notes. The genius here is the way the musical alternates between the founding of the Mormon religion (the gold plates!) and the journey of two young Elders on a mission to Uganda. We learn as we’re being entertained. The juxtaposition of the clean cut, tap dancing Mormon recruits against the backdrop of poverty, aids, and warlords creates a gold mine of comedic situations — ones that are milked for every single inappropriate guffaw.
The juxtaposition of the clean cut, tap dancing Mormon recruits against the backdrop of poverty, aids, and warlords creates a gold mine of comedic situations
A.J. Holmes and Billy Harrigan Tighe are on the money as the two young missionaries chasing their dreams to change the world. They anchor this touring production with strong, capable voices, and, especially, with wonderful, energetic dancing. Liking them is key. And like them we do. Watching a system, of sorts, program and define them, and gauging how they reconcile that learning against a foreign environment is, on the surface, comical, yet, at the same time, on a deeper level, possibly troubling and definitely interesting (e.g. the evolution of mythology, and how scripture can adapt).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Sainds (LDS Church) has, of course, taken it on the chin before, and not batted an eye. Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven (2003) is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the mechanics of creating a faith in the modern age. Though, fair warning, there are fewer dance numbers, and far less laughs.
It’s hard to believe Latter Day Saints would be entirely offended by this work. After all, their indoctrination is one built around rejection, and they’ve endured decades of ridicule — door bell ringing, and slammed doors are central to several delightfully choreographed bits. Learning to overcome this rejection, and convincing someone (any one!) to read “the book” in my estimation provides a foundation of dogged determination — a highly respectable trait in this age of lackadaisical, Tweet-fueled arms-length activism. A musical that pokes fun at them? Ha, child’s play. I suspect the exposure is ultimately good for Mormonism. In fact, you’ll find a full-page ad in the Mormon program cleverly proclaiming “The book is always better”, with website, and even QR code beneath. Members of LDS (or are those cast members?) can be found mingling outside the theater, inviting us to enjoy a copy of the book. This is a religion that knows a thing or two about marketing.
The book is always better
Maybe it’s because The Book of Mormon is coming up on its fourth anniversary, or sensibilities, or the interminable “zeitgeist” have evolved to the point where shock today is no longer the shock of yesterday. Or it could be that lately I’ve Netflixed my fair share of Jim Jefferies. Regardless, I kept waiting for that really, really raunchy moment. That moment when an awkward silence would hang over the theater, with the audience not knowing how to react. It never came. And I think that’s a good thing.
On location opening night Book of Mormon. @BroadwaySanJose @BookofMormon w @lonistark pic.twitter.com/r6GRuCJKjE
— Stark Insider (@StarkInsider) July 2, 2015
Poking fun at religion is trendy these days and low hanging fruit to many. To do it, however, in such a thoroughly entertaining way, with such detailed attention, and with a lining of affection for its protagonists, results in a musical that does its job tremendously well. We can’t stop smiling. Charmed, indeed. That thunderous standing ovation on opening night at the San Jose Performing Arts Center suggests that, yes, this musical might be every bit as entertaining as Return of the Jedi.