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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Stop the Insanity: Broadway’s “Next to Normal”

"But honey, he's dead!" Marin Mazzie as Diana celebrates the wrong kid's birthday as Jason Danieley's Dan points out her error. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

When I saw Alice Ripley and her co-stars perform a number from Next to Normal on the Tony Awards in 2009, I thought, well, there’s a show I never have to see. One year later…, several people have since told me how wonderful it is, I’m a fan of Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, the real-life husband and wife team who have taken over the leads on Broadway, there were half-price tickets available for a Sunday evening show, a time when most Broadway stages are dark, and so, what the hell.

What the hell, indeed.

This story of a woman’s bipolar disorder and how it affects her family is truly, unremittingly awful.  It’s a Lifetime: Television for Women movie turned Broadway rock musical. Brian Yorkey’s unimaginative lyrics and the generic storytelling of his book ensure that the characters never rise above the simplistic labels he applies to them (bipolar housewife, dull but supportive husband, resentful teenage daughter, etc.).  How bad is the writing?  (Spoiler alert: but then if you’re reading this, you’ve either already seen this show or you never will.)  At the show’s beginning, the couple’s son Gabe (the energetic Kyle Dean Massey) complains to mom Diana (Mazzie) about dad Dan (Danieley), “He acts like I don’t even exist.”  Well guess what? He doesn’t! He’s Diana’s hallucination of the child Dan and Diana lost in infancy 17 years ago, the traumatic event that sparked her bipolar symptoms.  (Why the infant hallucination has grown into a hunky 17-year-old probably has more to do with marketing than the actual nature of bi-polar hallucinations.  Later, as Gabe sings that he’ll remain “forever young,” you think, how so?  If he’s been growing for the past 17 years, why wouldn’t he continue to age?)

In the second act, when Diana undergoes shock therapy (yup), she alludes to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Frances, and then her gurney is rolled around in time to the music.  If you added a few more gurneys, you’d think you were seeing a number at a Mel Brooks show, the musical version of High Anxiety, say.

Mazzie seems to be trying something interesting at the beginning of show: she looks like hell: every inch a broken women, but 15-20 minutes in she begins crying and then never stops. Danieley’s Dan mopes around with his befuddled attempts at compassion, until we learn in the second act that his denial of his own grief over their son’s death is just as toxic to the family as Diana’s manic-depression  (Oy.) The only real human being in the cast is Henry, the daughter’s would-be boyfriend, sweetly played at the performance I saw by understudy Brian Crum.

There’re approximately 657 costume changes for each character, but since they all wear rather generic clothes (jeans and T-shirts are costume designer Jeff Mahshie’s basic trope), it seems rather pointless other than to illustrate the passage of time (and believe, me, you need no help feeling the passage of time in this show.) Director Michael Greif (Rent) has the characters climbing and running around the three levels of Mark Wendland’s ugly, constructivistic set, which largely consists of scaffolding.  (You see, their house isn’t really a home.)

Tom Kitt’s pounding rock score has the six-member cast caterwauling incessantly, and although it isn’t strictly a through-sung musical, there’s still way too much of the stuff.  The singing is uniformly professional, although sometimes you can hear Mazzie’s wonderfully trained voice singing in the middle registers, and you know what you’re missing when she has to screech rock-style in the upper registers.  The actors scream out their emotions, pounding the audience into submission, and by the amount of sniffles heard from the audience at play’s end, they’re largely successful.  Listening to those around me and seeing the actors sobbing on stage, I was put in mind of Pauline Kael’s infamous response to The Sound of Music: “Whom could it offend?  Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how self-indulgent and cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel.  And we may become even more aware of the way we have been used and turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming those sickly, goody-goody songs.”  The songs in Next to Normal aren’t goody-goody, and you aren’t likely to be humming them (Tom Kitt is no Richard Rodgers), but the point is the same: You can’t help but have an emotional response to all the ersatz emotion onstage, and you hate the show all the more for it.

But hey, a reader might be tempted to argue, the show won the Pulitzer Prize!

So did Rent.  Enough said.

Next to Normal plays until January 16, 2011 at the Booth Theatre in New York.  The touring production comes to San Francisco at the Curran Theatre on January 25 until February 21, 2011.  Tony-winner Alice Ripley will reprise her role as Diana. More information can be found at http://www.nexttonormal.com.