BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
“South Park” makers Trey Parker and Matt Stone deliver “The Book of Mormon,” a new Broadway musical that’s outrageously funny — and outrageously truthful — in its wickedly satirical observations.
Yes, it’s frequently vulgar, and yes, it roasts all sorts of sacred cows, but the show that opened Thursday at the Eugene O’Neill Theater undeniably is an original musical comedy that is both musical and comical.
In a season of tuners mostly derived from old movies, stories and songs, it’s a gold-plated Broadway miracle to encounter something so new and audaciously fresh in every respect of the word. Honestly, I haven’t heard an audience scream with such delight since “The Producers” landed in Times Square a decade ago.
The story regards two young Mormons about to serve their obligatory two years abroad as missionaries. Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) is handsome and dynamic. Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) is a pudgy, needy loser who knows far more “Star Trek” lore than Mormon doctrine.
Much as Price yearns to be assigned to Orlando, the incongruous pair is dispatched to war-torn Uganda, where an impoverished, AIDS-afflicted population isn’t at all receptive to the inspirational message the Mormons try to spread.
While the zealous Price runs afoul of an African warlord, among other horrors, Cunningham proves to be amazingly successful with the locals when he starts mixing up sci-fi mythologies with Mormon dogma.
Climaxing in a hilarious sequence when the newly-converted Ugandans stage a mad pageant celebrating the story of Joseph Smith – riddled with Cunningham’s fanciful interpolations – the musical turns out to be more than a mere spoof of organized religion. As in many a “South Park” episode, the show offers a good moral – in this case, the empowering nature of believing in something, no matter how ridiculous.
The f-bomb is dropped so often that it soon becomes harmless, but comical references to AIDS, genital mutilation, infant rape and similar dicey realities are likely to appall prudish viewers. Yet there is brutal truth to such dark humor, as well as impressive craft in the able ways Parker and Stone construct their show along classical Broadway musical comedy lines with composer Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q” repute.
A cheerful “Hello” opening chorus of doorbell-ringing missionaries, an infernally funny “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” episode and an ultimately blasphemous parody of “Hakuna Matata” (from “The Lion King,” which gets considerable ribbing) are among highlights of the brightly-hued score, which also features several sweet melodies. Although the orchestrations and vocal arrangements are top notch, the music occasionally is drowned out in cascading laughter created by the lyrics, staging and performances.
Nimbly staged with speed and visual wit by Parker and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, the production is expertly enhanced by the agility of Scott Pask’s settings and the droll detail of Ann Roth’s costumes. Elegantly framed by an ecclesiastical proscenium topped by a statue of the angel Moroni, religious dioramas come to life, raggedy African locales arise and even a fiery orange Hell pops open.
Congenial leading players and a frisky ensemble do well by the provocative material. Total Salt Lake City perfection in appearance, Rannells contrasts sharply against the goony-faced Gad, whose blubber boy of a hero becomes weirdly endearing. An ever-lovely Nikki M. James and a cheerful Michael Potts lead the Africans while a rabbit-y Rory O’Malley and an earnest Lewis Cleale represent nicely for the Mormon contingent.
The wonderful zest that everybody packs into their performances suggests that they love doing this brilliant show, and who can blame them? Let’s pray that the Messrs. Parker and Stone are dreaming up yet another original musical to brighten up dear old Broadway.
“The Book of Mormon” continues an open-end run at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 W. 49th St. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.bookofmormonbroadway.com.