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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE BOOK OF MORMON
at Eugene O’Neill Theatre

THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  (L to R) Michael James Scott, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Rema Webb, Lawrence Stallings, Maia Nkenge Wilson, Darlesia Cearcy and Josh Gad/ Ph: Joan Marcus

If Ben Brantley’s marquee quote asserting The Book of Mormon as “the best musical of the century” is to be taken seriously, the American musical is indeed an invalid and, to paraphrase the great George S. Kaufman, one that’s not so fabulous. Maybe it was the hype, the unqualified raves, the price of black-market tickets and the heightened sense of anticipation, but 10 minutes into it I feared my expectations would remain unrealized. And so it proved.
 
Yes, it’s great to look at (take a bow, Scott Pask), engagingly performed by its young, enthusiastic cast, abrasively choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who shares the slick direction with Trey Parker, but there’s something so sophomoric and juvenile about the book and lyrics by Messrs Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, it soon put me in mind of an elaborate stag show (one of the characters is called General Butt-F*****g Naked), created with one purpose only – to shock.
 
Little more than an extended episode of Parker and Stone’s animated TV series South Park, the plot, as everyone by now must know, involves a group of naïve Mormon missionaries in general and two (Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells) in particular who are dispatched to an AIDS-riddled village in Uganda in order to spread the gospel according to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the founders of the Church of Mormon, both of whom make token appearances in the show, as does Jesus and an angel called Moroni.
 
There are references throughout to earlier Broadway musicals – most notably an homage to The King and I in the shape of a smutty pastiche of Jerome Robbin’s ballet The Small House of Uncle Thomas, with certain plot similarities to that musical as well as to The Sound of Music.
 
The score is, at best, jaunty without being memorable, the catchiest number by some considerable distance being "Turn It Off," an energetically choreographed ode to repression sung by the show’s campy chorus line of male missionaries, infectiously led by Rory O’Malley.
 
Working overtime to breathe some life into a not particularly funny book are Rannells as square-cut, squeaky-clean Mormon Elder Price and Gad as the slobbish, overweight Elder Cunningham. The male bonding between them, redolent of so many contemporary buddy-buddy movies, is a standout cliché in a musical that is stridently and self-consciously attempting to break new ground.
 
The biggest hit Broadway is enjoying since The Producers – a far superior musical on every level – The Book of Mormon is simply a case of the emperor’s new clothes. That it has taken (and taken in) the town in such a big way is the only truly shocking thing about it.

 


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