Dogma Doo: “The Book of Mormon”

Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad) spread the Word. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Broadway’s The Book of Mormon is a certified mega-success. Created by South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, along with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, the show won a passel of Tonys a few months ago, upped its prices so that it’s now the most expensive ticket on Broadway, and is sold out until 2012. Ben Brantley of the New York Times led the unanimous acclaim by proclaiming it the “the best new musical (so far, anyway) of the 21st century.” (Somehow, his parenthetical comment doesn’t do quite enough to curb the hyperbole.) It’ll run for years.

I loved Stone and Parker’s 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. Full of crassness and obscenity and genuine wit, this satire of American mores and myths is one of the great movie musicals, beautifully constructed and magnificently, hilariously scored (by Parker and Marc Shaiman, who went on to do Hairspray and the new Catch Me If You Can). Impossibly smart, it’s also unbelievably funny. With a pastiche of songs that satirized Les Miz, The Little Mermaid, and the excesses of contemporary pop, as well as displaying a genuine affection for traditional Broadway razzmatazz, it demonstrated an exquisite knowledge of musical comedy conventions and construction. So of course, I (along with the rest of the world) looked forward to seeing their attempts at a genuine Broadway musical.

Almost no one has had a single negative comment about The Book of Mormon. Even the Mormon Church released a surprisingly measured response: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” I tend to be wary of critical consensus, although sometimes it’s warranted: The Producers and Hairspray are cases in point. The shows, when I finally got to see them, met the sky-high expectations raised by their rapturous reviews. With The Book of Mormon I was hoping I’d be able to join the general huzzahs.

But as I sat in the Eugene O’Neill theatre, watching the carefully calibrated and choreographed (in all senses of the word) spectacle proceed, a creeping sense of disappointment began to set in. The crudeness and obscenity didn’t seem fresh so much as tiresome and strained. The set-up isn’t especially clever, nor is it especially fair. The Mormon Church gets off rather lightly (though not its dogma, which deserves what it gets), but the production’s treatment of Africa, more specifically Uganda, where the two young Mormon protagonists are sent on their mission, doesn’t sit well. Using the ravages of AIDS, poverty, warlord tyranny, and sexual violence as vehicles for musical comedy requires a finer sensibility than Stone and Parker’s. (One of the few things that worked in their 2004 comic marionette movie Team America: World Police, was the song “Everyone Has AIDS,” from the fictitious Broadway musical Lease. But in this case, Stone and Parker weren’t dealing with the plight of AIDS victims, they were puncturing the fatuousness of Rent, a ripe target.)

To be fair, much of the show is genuinely hilarious, and the score has several highlights, especially at the beginning. “You and Me (but Mostly Me)” zings Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” (in about half the time of the original) as Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), the golden boy of his particular class of missionaries, sings of the things he’ll accomplish, as long as the screw-up assigned to accompany him, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), stays out of his way. Several numbers have a peppy Up-with-People hokiness that gives the audience a feel-good buzz even as they laugh at the material. (“Two by two, / We’re marching door to door! / ‘Cause God loves Mormons/ And he wants some more.”) But things begin going wrong with one of the more infamous songs, “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (a spoof of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata”). “Eebowai” gives away its joke (what the phrase actually means) too soon and then goes on trying to top it with relentless (and unfunny) crudeness. The show and song would be better served with the punch line saved for the song’s end.

The comedy rule of three is no longer of any use to Stone and Parker. They too often bludgeon you with repeated jokes. One character’s complaint of a maggot-infested scrotum is repeatedly endlessly. “Clitoris” and “clit” are mentioned incessantly, and barely a minute goes by where the F-word isn’t spoken. (In the South Park movie, the truly fabulous song “Uncle Fucker,” a joyous orgy of F-bombs, worked because it came out of the blue. Nothing prepared you for it, and it was genuinely shocking as well as riotous. You couldn’t quite believe you’d heard what you just heard.) And quite frankly, the creators’ decision to set the show in Uganda is a large part of why the crudeness and obscenities don’t work. Stone, Parker, and Lopez clearly wanted a locale where the problems were too huge, too overwhelming, for the consolations of Mormonism, but piling on compulsory female circumcision, AIDS, and numerous other African miseries, expecting us to laugh at their repeated mentions, is just too much.

Elder Price sings the sweeping, very funny anthem, “I Believe,” in an attempt to convert the evil warlord who’s made life hell for the village where the missionaries have been assigned (“And I believe!/ That in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!” the chorus echoing soulfully “Black people!” and “I believe! /That God lives on a planet called Kolob!”) But at the conclusion, the warlord’s response takes place with the lights down, and because we don’t trust the writers, we assume from Elder Price’s screams that something truly terrible is happening. (We assume he’s being raped.) What actually happens isn’t revealed until several scenes later, and it turns out to be a crass joke that might have been funny with cartoon protagonists, but doesn’t seem so funny when embodied by actual people.

There are other problems as well. Directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also did the choreography) don’t properly delineate the other Ugandan missionaries (most of them are indistinguishable), so in the song “Turn It Off,” a paean to the glories of repression, you can’t keep track of which Mormon is which, and whose story is whose. When Elder Price has his moment of doubt, the musical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is clumsily staged and confusedly designed. (It’s an excess of ridiculousness that puzzles more than it delights.)

For the first-act finale (“Man Up”) they rely on a device used in the South Park movie, (and borrowed from Les Miz and countless other musicals) where strains and phrases from all the songs we’ve already heard show up in medley and in counterpoint. But here the tunes don’t mesh as well as they did in South Park, and the score feels forced and awkward. And in “Joseph Smith, American Moses,” a number that goes on way too long, and in which we’re meant to find hilarious all the obscenities we’ve already heard too many times, the villagers enact a pageant on Mormonism for some Church higher-ups. (The number’s inspiration: the far more charming “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” from The King and I.)

Andrew Rannells seems born to play the part of Kevin Price, the star Mormon pupil from whom big things are expected. Tall, blandly non-threateningly handsome, clean-cut, he possesses a broad face, large white teeth and perfect hair. Dressed in the emblematic short-sleeved white shirt, black tie, and high-waisted black trousers, he’s the essence of the white (really white) Mormon missionary—earnestness personified. (Irony is a foreign language to Elder Price.) He also sings in a nasal, square, slightly dorky voice, but which has surprising range and control. Faith, fervor, and idealism beam from his eyes, and his inevitable crises of belief are both touching and funny.

Unfortunately, I was less taken with Josh Gad’s performance as Arnold Cunningham, the screw-up assigned to be partners with Elder Price. (Cunningham serves the same function as the role of George Lewis in Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime—the idiot successful in spite of himself.) Cunningham is a chunky, attention-deficit-disordered geek, who has never actually read the Book he’s supposed to be preaching. He’s also prone to outrageous lies whenever he feels slightly uncomfortable. Gad is willing to do anything for a laugh. He throws his voice around, alternating between weird, Peewee-Herman-esque vocalizations, full-voiced yells, and hiccup-y giggles. But manic, comic craziness is not a character choice, and his Cunningham remains a collection of tics, spasms, and impulse control problems that never gels into a real person (even within the confines of Stone, Parker, and Lopez’s insane world).

Nikki M. James has a winning sweetness as the village girl who becomes the first convert (she also has a hell of a voice), and the rest of the cast is talented and game.

The show’s eventual “thesis” (the fact there is a thesis is a big part of why the show disappoints) is that as long as you don’t take the dogma too seriously, all religions are equivalent and can actually be helpful, no matter how far-fetched their particular scriptures and strictures. Without giving too much of the plot away, the villagers are taken in by Elder Cunningham’s ridiculous embellishments of the Book of Mormon, (which he hasn’t read, remember)—a combination of popular sci-fi movies involving lots of frog-fucking (don’t ask)—and their lives are made better. Improbably so, even for a Stone and Parker creation. Christopher Durang eviscerated Catholic dogma in his hilarious one-act Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Stone, Parker and Lopez do the same on a smaller scale for Mormonism, but at play’s end they wimp out, dismissing the tragedies of Africa and shrugging their shoulders with a “hey, dude: it’s all good” message. This time out, it ain’t.

The missionaries take a detour through "The Lion King" on their way to Uganda.

The Book of Mormon will play forever at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York. It’s effectively sold-out, but there are some standing-room and lottery tickets available at each performance. More information can be found at www.bookofmormonbroadway.com.

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Separate, Together, Equal, Unequal: “Driving Miss Daisy” on Broadway

Together but unequal: Daisy Werthan (Vanessa Redgrave) upbraids Hoke Coleburn (James Earl Jones). Photo: Carol Rosegg

When the New York Times’ Ben Brantley reviewed the new revival of Driving Miss Daisy (actually, it’s a Broadway debut—the previous incarnation with Morgan Freeman and Dana Ivey was Off-Broadway), he lauded the powerhouse cast of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones but sneered at Alfred Uhry’s script: “…I would see [Redgrave and Jones] in absolutely anything. Even Driving Miss Daisy….”

The play has won numerous awards, as did the terrific 1989 movie version with Freeman and Jessica Tandy, but even so, it’s surprisingly popular to deride it as schmaltzy and even racist. Those who dislike the play might sum it up thusly: Cranky elderly Jewish lady is initially hostile to her shuffling, subservient black chauffeur, but with time they find friendship, respect and even love for each other. It does sound awful on the face of it, smacking of greeting card sensibilities, and it’s accurate enough (except for the characterization of the chauffeur as shuffling and subservient, but more on that later) as far as it goes, but the summation is woefully short of the mark. I don’t doubt that there have been countless community theater productions that have played it exactly that way, but it’s a little like saying that Three Sisters is about three whiny girls who want to go the big city, but can’t ever muster up the gumption to do so.

Don’t get me wrong: Driving Miss Daisy is not Chekhov. It doesn’t change theater as we know it: It doesn’t explore new territory or develop new ideas. The script is conventional in both its structure and its stagecraft, but it’s also finely drawn, beautifully observed, and rich in emotional complexity. Uhry has learned all the right lessons from Chekhov, and he also owes a big debt to Thornton Wilder, who’s Our Town has also been dismissed as sentimental.

The scene people often point to as proof of sappiness is when Daisy, her mind going, says to Hoke, “You’re my best friend.” But this is not a simple declaration that sweeps the past under a rug: It’s a confession of loneliness, an apology for past mistreatment, a lament for missed opportunities, and an expression of gratitude. When the right actress delivers this line, it resonates with innumerable meanings, and Redgrave, like Tandy before her, is the right actress.

As far as the charge of racism goes, Hoke is a black man in the employ of a white man (Daisy’s son Boolie, played by Boyd Gaines), providing chauffeur services to a wealthy white woman, and he is subservient (up to a point) to both of them. But who in this world isn’t subservient to their employer and to their customers? It’s the nature of having a job. And it’s the moments where Hoke doesn’t kowtow, where he asserts his own worth and dignity, that make the play work: when, on a long drive, over Miss Daisy’s objections, he pulls the car over “to make water,” since the restroom at the service station they last stopped at was off-limits to “colored” men, or when he asks Boolie for a raise, responding to Boolie’s first offer of sixty-five dollars a week with “Sounds pretty good. Seventy-five sounds better.”

The play’s most complex, and best scene, concerns a speech by Martin Luther King that Daisy has tickets to. She can’t get her son to accompany her (his business would suffer if the white Atlantans he must deal with knew he was a supporter of King’s), and she’s shocked when Boolie suggests she ask Hoke to accompany her. (Part of her shock is clearly embarrassment over not having thought of it herself.) But she can’t bring herself to ask Hoke outright, and issues him a last-minute non-invitation, which Hoke upbraids her for: “…next time you ask me someplace, ask me regular.” Both of them end up angry at each other, Hoke more justified in his anger, and Miss Daisy more truly angry at herself, but afraid to face that truth.

Race and religion are suffused throughout the play as its characters strive for dignity, either as a black man or a Jewish woman in a culture that devalues them both. Racial violence and the threat of it haunt the play: Daisy’s synagogue is bombed; Hoke recounts a lynching he saw. (Sentimental? The charge seems laughable.) It’s because Uhry doesn’t linger on any of this, doesn’t underline it or revel in it, that I think people undervalue this aspect of the play. He doesn’t step in and wag his finger or exclaim at the horror of it; he portrays people going on with their daily lives in the face of it as best they can, while also dealing with the indignities of old age and failing minds and bodies.

Redgrave and Jones are spectacular in this production, bringing all their insight, skill, and experience to flesh out Uhry’s text. Redgrave cackles silently to herself after having just told Boolie to give her love to Florine, the daughter-in-law Daisy can’t stand. Her body grows more stooped as the years pass, and her voice more cracked. Jones carefully gauges whether it’s okay to shake the hand Boolie has offered him letting you know it’s probably the first time a white man has done such a thing to Hoke. (Surprisingly, I did have some trouble with Jones’ diction at several moments throughout the play: some of his dialogue is hard to hear clearly.) Both Redgrave and Jones are able to project intimacy even in a cavernous Broadway theater. Boyd Gaines, too, does fine work as Boolie, tickled as much as irritated by his mother’s cranky resolve. (Gaines has become an exceptional actor. I wasn’t much of a fan of his early work, but in Journey’s End, Gypsy, and now Driving Miss Daisy, he gives performances of immense empathy and real stature.) David Esbjornson’s direction is especially adept with the actors (although, given the cast, his main task was probably staying out of their way), but he employs projections against the back wall (designed by Wendall K. Harrington) that are probably unnecessary, making explicit what’s should be implicit. John Lee Beatty’s scenery isn’t much to look at, but then this play is about the actors: Jones and Redgrave make the world they inhabit fully visible to the audience.

Yes, Driving Miss Daisy is about friendship and love. It’s also about how we can deny those things to ourselves when our own sense of dignity is threatened, when we’re afraid to admit that we need another person. That isn’t sentimentality: That’s art.

Driving Miss Daisy plays at the Golden Theatre in New York and has just been extended to April 9, 2011. For more information, go to www.daisyonbroadway.com.