Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Book of Mormon - Or, Am I Becoming a Curmudgeon?

Last night my friend Don and I made our way into DC to see a production of the blockbuster play, "The Book of Mormon," at the Kennedy Center. We had purchased the tickets months ago but for some reason, which is highly unlike me, I had not done my homework ahead of time. If I had known that this musical was written by the men who gave us "South Park," I would have immediately disabused myself of the idea that we were going to see a brilliantly written, clever, smart, send-up of organized religion.

The Book of Mormon


I have scoured the Internet for a bad review of "The Book of Mormon" and am hard-pressed to find one, so let me go out on a limb here and be the first. Any readers who have been following me even for a little while should, I hope, get a sense of the type of person I am. NOT a prude! OPEN to new places, ideas, and beliefs. I revel in the physical nature of human beings but I stopped seeing humor in the scatological by the time I was ten. Apparently Trey Parker and Matt Stone have yet to outgrow it.

If it's possible that there's anyone out there who isn't familiar with this play, the premise is as follows. Two Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda, Africa, to spend two years bringing souls to Jesus Christ. The church elders, one who has a Lancelot type ego, the other who considers himself nothing more than a follower, are shocked when they discover that the denizens of this African village have bigger issues to deal with than God - AIDS, terrorism, starvation, and female genital mutilation. Where, you might wonder, does one find the humor in that?

When a tribal warlord, a caricature of Idi Amin, shoots one of the villagers dead in front of the idealistic Elder Price, Price falls apart (regretting that God didn't choose to send him to his first choice posting, Orlando, Florida) and asks for a transfer, leaving the insecure Elder Cunningham with the task of baptizing the villagers. Cunningham, a bookworm with a fabulous imagination, turns to his knowledge of Star Trek, The Hobbit, and Star Wars, to rewrite the Book of Mormon into a palatable, no, an exciting story of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, you know, something the na├»ve "natives" can latch onto.

And here's one of the problems with "The Book of Mormon." While the music is catchy, the dance numbers terrific, and the stage performers outstanding, how does any self-respecting black actor take a role in a play meant to make him look a fool? Could the village doctor have even one other line besides, "I've got maggots on my scrotum?" I finally lost track of all the jokes that centered on penises, vaginas, and poop, realizing at some point that the audience was so young that an actually really funny reference to President Clinton and Ms. Monica Lewinsky went right over their heads!

At least I now understand why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints didn't protest en masse when this production began breaking box office records on Broadway. They come out of this looking fabulous! Some might say the tale of Joseph Smith digging up the golden tablets in his back yard in upstate New York and recognizing them as the word of God is just a little bit crazy. But with a soupcon of embellishment, Salt Lake City, Utah, ends up looking as much like paradise as Disney World. We left the theatre longing for the intelligence and nuance of "Jesus Christ, Superstar."

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