The bad boys of South Park are back with a bigger-than-ever production—a religious, satirical musical called “The Book of Mormon.” It has been a week since I saw the performance at the Forrest Theater, yet every time I meet a friend, that’s precisely how I incentivize them to watch the musical. To say that “The Book of Mormon” is a “religious satire” is to undermine the diversity of themes that the play grapples with, be it repressed homosexuality, female genital mutilation in Africa or the tenor of religion.
Co-created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of the animated comedy South Park) and Robert Lopez, the musical tells the story of two Mormon missionaries, the very ambitious Elder Price (David Larsen) and the hero-sidekick Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand) who are sent to Uganda on a mission to baptize the locals of a village. The first musical number, “Hello” shows the attempts of Mormon missionaries who go from door-to-door to convert people to Mormonism.
The catchy music and the hilarious lyrics are not the only draw to this nonstop-laughter rollercoaster. The engaging plotline keeps the audience on its toes, the tight script is specked with laughter-inducing antics and one-liners, and the actors know how to captivate their audience.
When Elder Price and Elder Cunningham arrive in Uganda, they realize that the locals have bigger issues to grapple with than religion—the village is terrorized by a local warlord, General Butt-F-cking-Naked. His character is based on the real General Butt Naked, known for his violence during the First Liberian Civil War in the 1990s. Tie-ins like these allow that one could argue that besides being funny, the play is also informative. The Elders meet locals like Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels), the play’s female lead, and learn about problems like AIDS and poverty that afflict the locals.
Using satirical humor as social commentary is a tool Parker and Stone have often employed in many episodes of South Park. They use this tool to drive home many points which, amid the hilarity, the audience cannot miss. An interview with Quarrels revealed the same. Quarrels believes that the writers have used Mormonism not as an outpost for ridiculing religion (although, let’s be honest, a play associated with Parker and Stone cannot “not ridicule religion”), but as a commentary on larger issues like the relevance of different interpretations of a religion or problems like poverty and rape that plague Africa. Quarrels is right in recognizing that the writers are able to make us laugh at tragedy. Her insight and honesty is what lets her portray Nabulungi to perfection—be it the enunciation of a Ugandan accent (and I’m relying on its rightful portrayal by the director) or her captivation with the idea of leaving to a land of promises—Salt Lake City.
The performances of characters, the set and costumes, and the musical numbers are all commendable, but it is Daxton Bloomquist who steals the show. Bloomquist reappears as many different characters in the play, but he first captivates his audience in his role of Elder McKinley, a Mormon missionary in Africa who deals with his repressed homosexual feelings and his fear of “Mormon Hell dreams.” If it is of any consolation to him, he has certainly earned a place in my dreams. Bloomquist never fails to earn a hearty laughter from his audience, be it in musical numbers like “Turn It Off” which glorifies repression of feelings, or in his pseudo-waltz-dancer exit after he shows Elder Price and Elder Cunningham their rooms.
What sets “The Book of Mormon” apart is how unpredictable it is. I assumed that it would tell the story of how Elder Price espouses a change in Uganda through his missionary efforts (and the humor of his missionary comrades), but the plotline flips 180 degrees and presents a new hero to the audience.
In her interview, Quarrels says that she wants the play to make people laugh while touching their hearts. I think she puts concisely what “The Book of Mormon” succeeds in accomplishing within 90 minutes—not only does the musical touch its audience’s hearts, it creates a niche for contemplating (worshipping, really) the genius of the writers who have managed to skillfully make their audience think, feel and laugh at once. The musical runs until Dec. 27 at the Forrest Theater, and if there is a chance you see me before that, I might sing my own version of “Hello” to convert you into a Book of Mormon musical fan.