(This review is written be American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
The Book of Mormon has been one of Broadway’s hottest tickets for several years now, and it’s easy to see why. Witty, irreverent, offensive, and even moving at times, the national tour of the show, playing at Bass Concert Hall through Dec 13, brings high production value and biting satire to Austin.
With book, music, and lyrics by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (a.k.a. the South Park guys) and Robert Lopez (a.k.a. one half of the songwriting duo for Frozen and one of the co-creators of Avenue Q), The Book Of Mormon comes with a high pedigree that does not disappoint. The show is a mix of the three men’s sensibilities, containing both biting satire and a surprising degree of earnestness as we follow the story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two young Mormons who are sent on a religious conversion mission to Uganda. The resulting experience, of course, is far from what the two men expected.
At various times The Book of Mormon crosses back and forth over the line between pointed satire and “hipster racism” (that is, the “ironic” use of racism for the sake of a joke). In playing with the tropes of Africa from popular culture versus the reality of what the people there face, much of their horrific plight is made light of, sometimes uncomfortably. The entire story also falls prey to the white savior narrative, as the two Mormon missionaries completely change the way of life of the Ugandans.
On the other hand, the message of the show is to not simply accept these tropes and stories as rote, but rather to take what is valuable from our various mythologies (both religious and popular) in order to create a story that is helpful to us. In this way, The Book or Mormon takes a stand against simplistic notions of “civilized” vs. “primitive” in order to point towards a focus on tomorrow rather than on an imagined afterlife.
Though these themes are heady stuff and rather subtle, the play itself is anything but. The jokes come rapidly and are often hilarious, the songs are as catchy as they are funny, and the dance numbers are stunning in their combination of humorous gestures with traditional jazzy Broadway steps.
The performances of the entire cast combine knowing satire with a deeper level of emotion. Billy Harrigan Tighe is a ball of energy as the “golden boy” Elder Price, whose many solo numbers give the show its momentum. Alexandra Ncube, as the naïve Ugandan girl Nabulungi, combines a golden voice with a beaming stage presence that gives the show its primary female energy (something it is unfortunately lacking in otherwise).
A.J. Holmes’ Elder Cunningham, though, is the highlight of the show. In contrast to the original portrayal of the character by Josh Gad, which was that of a clingy, slightly obnoxious nerd with a heart of gold, Holmes’ Cunningham is “adorkable” as a lonely, sweet geek whose outright goofiness makes him instantly likable.
Although some of its treatment of important issues of race, religion, and international aid veers from the satirical towards the patronizing, ultimately The Book of Mormon is a good-hearted show with a potty mouth that takes aim at Broadway clichés through dark humor and bright performances.
“The Book of Mormon” continues through Dec. 13. www.texasperformingarts.org