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.

Webslingin’: “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark”

The Green Goblin (Patrick Page) discovers the true identity of Spider-Man (Reeve Carney). Photo: Jacob Cohl

So, how big a disaster is Julie Taymor’s latest magnum opus? Theatrically, it’s pretty big. Can it be fixed before the official opening (just delayed again until Feb. 7, 2011)?  I’m afraid I don’t see how. The script (by Taymor and Glen Berger) is a hopeless muddle, especially in the second act, and the score by U2’s Bono and The Edge is a disaster in and of itself: ponderous, dreary, and tuneless. (One ballad, “If the World Should End,” sung by Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson, sounds like an Evanescence song. That alone made me want to run for the exit.  Most of the other numbers sound like underscoring.)

Taymor and Berger’s main innovations to the well-known origin story are to overlay the Greek myth of Arachne, adding the weaver turned spider by the jealous Athena as an actual character.  (It’s apparently Arachne who gives Peter Parker his costume after he gains his powers in the traditional way—being bitten by a genetically modified spider.  Although, like everything else in the play, this isn’t clear.) There is much speculation about Arachne being Taymor’s alter-ego—at one point Arachne proclaims that “I’m the greatest artist working today”—but if so, Taymor’s making a joke at her own expense. One truly bad idea should be excised post-haste—a “geek chorus”: four comic-book nerds who are either recounting or creating or re-creating the story of Spider-Man.  (I’m not actually sure what their purpose is, other than to be annoying and stop the narrative cold whenever they appear.)

Act I basically follows the familiar Spider-Man story pretty closely except for the addition of Arachne, but the scenes just pay homage to the comic book without really connecting with each other in any kind of narrative.   We see Mary Jane in her house with her abusive father, and then we next see her in her own apartment without any idea of when or how she moved there.  In Act II things really go nutso.  After Spider-Man (Reeve Carney, who also stars in Taymor’s film of The Tempest) has defeated the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) and the Sinister Six (a collection of super-villains who all appear at once for some reason), he decides to give up the superhero biz out of love for Mary Jane. Arachne (Natalie Mendoza) is jealous and so she moves out of her astral plane, revives the Green Goblin and the Sinister Six and brings a blackout and mayhem to the real world until Peter agrees to resume the mantle of Spider-Man and go back with Arachne to her astral plane forever, thereby saving Mary Jane’s life.  Or something like that. It’s a phantasmagorical mélange that might literally be a bad dream of Peter’s.  Or it might all be taking place in his psyche.  Hell if I know.

During all this chaos, there is a song about shoes:  Arachne’s arachnid henchwomen, the Furies, steal lots of shoes, because they have eight feet, and thus they need lots of shoes, and this somehow allows Arachne to assume the shape of a mortal (because she has lots of shoes), so that she can convince J. Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulhern), publisher of the Daily Bugle, that Spider-Man is really a good guy.  Got it?

There are some memorable moments.  Recounting Arachne’s story, weavers swing on giant swaths of fabric, and as they alternate, horizontal lengths of material zoom upwards, forming a woof to the warp of the swings, and a giant tapestry is woven before our eyes.  The spidery Furies manipulate four extra legs strapped to their midsection during their number, and Daniel Ezralow’s choreography here is both creepy and sexy. George Tysipin’s scenery is impressive, both constructivistic and expressionistic in its take on the urban landscape.  (One set allows the audience to look down the sides of the looming skyscrapers to the street below.)

But Taymor’s conception of the look of the villains is too literal.  (The costume design is credited to Eiko Ishioka, but Taymor designed the masks.) She’s so wedded to giving the show the look of a comic book, that she fails to add anything of her own.  The amazing thing about Taymor’s The Lion King was the complete re-imagination of the look of the Disney movie.  Here, the super-villains’ costumes look expensive, but not especially imaginative.  And since they’re thrown at you all at once, you can’t really figure out what you’re looking at or who these villains are until much later, if at all.  And although most of the settings are clearly contemporary, the Daily Bugle newsroom seems to be set in the 1950s, as an all-female steno pool bangs away on manual typewriters.  The attempted explanation for this is that Jameson prefers typewriters to computers, but then how the hell does he get his paper out each day?  (And since he mostly ignores the news his reporters bring him, how does he find anything to put in it?)

Much of the show’s publicity thus far has centered around the limb-breaking, concussion-inducing aerial stunts, as report after report of injured cast members has hit the media.  The first aerial sequence with Carney is sort of nifty, as he literally bounces off the stylized walls of his bedroom, discovering the extent of his new powers.  The big flying feats, where Spider-Man and the Green Goblin swing out over the audience and land on the Foxwood Theatre’s two balconies are fast and dangerous-looking, and they do provide a measure of excitement.  But they hardly make up for the show’s basic deficiencies.

As far as the cast goes, almost no one really has a chance to act, because there are no recognizable human beings on the stage or in the script (unlike in Sam Raimi’s terrific Spider-Man 2 movie).  Page uses his booming voice effectively as he chortles evilly as the Goblin, but it’s a one-note trick; Mendoza speaks with a pompous and tiresome British accent as Arachne; and Damiano (originator of the role of the daughter in Next to Normal, cast here after Evan Rachel Wood, who worked with Taymor in Across the Universe, dropped out several months ago) is just plain boring.  The one cast member who is required to do some emoting, Reeve Carney, just isn’t up to the task.  Carney is a singer with an intriguing rock vocal style. (His band Carney features his brother Zane on guitar, and Zane and the rest of the band are part of the back-stage orchestra for this production.)  He sounds like a more expressive Rufus Wainwright, and he’s effective in his big number, “The Boy Falls from the Sky,” a soaring anthem that’s the only real song. He’s also got a great look as Peter Parker, but as an actor, he’s frankly terrible.  It doesn’t help that the second act dialogue sounds pasted together and disjointed, but even so, he has no idea how to approach a dramatic text, and his speaking voice often sounds strained and hoarse.  (Will his voice hold up against the demands of a long Broadway run?  Taymor has already brought in a second actor to play Peter Parker/Spider-Man in some performances, Matthew James Thomas.)

When you think about it, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark doesn’t seem much like a theatrical experience.  It’s more comparable to a Cirque du Soliel Vegas spectacular.  Similar to the Cirque’s O, whose aquatic arena was specially built for the show, the Foxwoods theatre has been remodeled and refitted specifically for Spider-Man, ensuring it can’t tour, and thus requiring a run of at least several years to make a profit.  More apropos is the Aladdin show at Disneyland’s California Adventure park, where another famed theater and opera director, Francesca Zambella, fashioned a shortened version of Disney’s animated film big on technological effects (flying carpets swoop over the audience), but short on writing and acting values.  Does Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, the most expensive Broadway musical ever made, have any chance of financial success?  The preview I saw was sold out, and received a partial standing ovation, but in my experience audiences often do this defiantly in reaction to the badmouthing an expensive spectacle is receiving in the press.  The hype and Taymor and U2’s involvement guarantee that the show will run a long time, but will it be long enough?  That’s a question I can’t answer.  What I can tell you is that artistically, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is a misbegotten mess, a product of a famous rock band that hasn’t the slightest idea of how to write for a musical, and a director who’s paid no attention to the most basic of requirements for the theater: a decent script.  But you still want to see it, don’t you?

Can "Spider-Man" stay aloft? Photo: Jacob Cohl

Spider-Man Turn off the Dark takes up residence at the Foxwoods Theatre in New York for the near future.  Currently in previews, the show is now scheduled to open officially on February 7. 2011.  For more information, go to www.SpiderManOnBroadway.com.

Postscript:  Strictly speaking it isn’t kosher for a critic to review a production still in previews.  I would never do this for a San Francisco production, but Spider-Man, a whale of a show in comparison to Scene 2’s microscopic bit of plankton, will easily withstand any blows I strike.  And Ms. Taymor is welcome to fly me out to New York once Spider-Man opens, and I will gladly re-review it.