The Book of Mormon brings bad language, blasphemy from Broadway to Baltimore
By Baynard Woods
Mar 05, 2014 | 3:00 AM
The Book of Mormon
Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone
At the Hippodrome Theatre through March 9
John Waters says that
is the most subversive
of his works because now, as a musical, it is being performed in theaters and schools all across the country. I can't imagine 10th graders being allowed to sing any of the songs in Matt Stone and Trey Parker's
showtune, Parker and Stone had some of Baltimore's swankiest citizens uncomfortably laughing along at the show's Baltimore premiere at the Hippodrome, where it plays through March 9.
The musical, about two Mormon missionaries in Uganda, is a magisterial example of gallows humor. "Hasa Diga Eebowai," the song from which the above words came, has other verses like:
"We've had no rain in several days/ Hasa Diga Eebowai/ And eighty percent of us have AIDS/ Hasa Diga Eebowai/ Many young girls here get circumsized/ Their clits get cut right off/ And so we say up to the sky/ Hasa Diga Eebowai."
The two Mormon kids, the ambitious and popular Elder Price (Mark Evans) and troubled Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) sing along, adding their own litany of complaints-a crowded plane, a late bus, and other things we now hashtag as #firstworldproblems. But the really funny thing is that these two devout boys have no idea that the phrase they're singing translates as "fuck God." Like the audience, they're unaware of the sacrilege they are participating in. In some countries, a play like this would get you killed. (We've gotta give credit to the Mormons who bought ads in the playbill that say "You've seen the play. . . . now read the book.")
Indeed, a packed house for this musical, relentless in its profanity and irreverence, gives me hope for the world: You really
say anything if you put it to a showtune.
Broadway shows can be all production and no heart. And to be sure, the production value was almost shockingly good. The set-with numerous backdrops that mechanically rise and fall to change the scene-the dancing, the acting, and the singing all made even our best local theater companies seem almost amateurish. Normally, I wouldn't be swayed by such things, but in this case, the glossy production served to greatly enhance the satire. If someone at Annex Theater sang about fucking God in the ass, it wouldn't have quite the same thrill. Theater is context.
The writing is also solid. Elder Price, a selfish young man, wants to do something incredible with his life. He wants to change the world and sees his two-year Mormon mission as his chance. He hopes to go to his favorite city, Orlando, Fla., which he has idealized since a childhood visit. He feels sorely, disastrously dispirited when he is assigned to Uganda and partnered with the unpopular Elder Cunningham, whose disappointed father talks about his propensity for making things up.
When they arrive, the village is under the control of a general (Corey Jones) intent on circumsizing its women, and none of the current missionaries have found a single convert. Elder Price gets disappointed and tries to depart, leaving Elder Cunningham alone to face the crisis; Cunningham does what any good prophet would do: He makes shit up. And he converts the entire tribe.
O'Neill is pretty spectacular as Cunningham, his portly clumsiness emphasizing one of the essential traits of a prophet-he understands the outcast. Mark Evans' Elder Price is so smarmy and perfect that he could never connect with the Ugandans, whether the general whom he tries convert, or Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube), Cunningham's romantic interest.
The Book of Mormon
, of course, satirizes Mormonism, which said officially, until 2013, that dark skin was a curse. But it also satirizes depictions of Africa in other musicals, especially
Nevertheless, it falls into some of the same traps of exoticism as others: The Africans on the stage exist in Elder Price's privileged world-they are there to help tell the story of the two white boys who want to do great things. It is exactly like Price imagined, except that Cunningham does the great things instead of Price, who ends up looking a bit like Mitt Romney.
The whole Broadway thing can also be a little much, like a friend who is always "on." The great neuroscientist Oliver Sacks told
that when he saw
Book of Mormon
on Broadway last year, it gave him a migraine. That's not surprising.
Still, those are minor quibbles. After all, Stone and Parker have managed to sneak the unholy humor of