“The Book of Mormon” made me feel I’ve been too easy on the other musicals I’ve reviewed. Like a genius dropped into a class of smart kids, it altered the grading curve. Winner of nine Tony Awards in 2011, including best musical, it makes clear what all those other shows were missing. Jokes about sex with frogs, for one thing.
It’s traditionally well-made with lots of heart, but never old-fashioned — go expecting “Annie” and you’ll have a stroke. It’s hilariously filthy and sometimes crude, but miraculously not offensive, at least to judge by Wednesday’s audience at the Colonial Theatre. Leaping from Salt Lake City to Uganda, it’s a comedy about faith and religion that builds plot points around earthly trials such as AIDS and female genital mutilation. And it’s incredibly sure-footed in following this, um, highly individual creative path.
Two of “The Book of Mormon” creators, of course, are Matt Stone and Trey Parker of “South Park.” Those who haven’t seen the TV show will find it hard to believe that they’ve actually dialed back their outrageousness — just a little — for the stage. But they haven’t let go of the anything-goes imagination that animation enabled. Credit the third member of the team, Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q”), for the sparkling Broadway polish, the musical momentum that never flags.
After a brief prologue that rolls its eyes at the Mormon origin story, we meet Elder Price (David Larsen) and Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), two young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints paired up for their required two years of missionary work. Price is less than thrilled to be saddled with the nebbishy, chunky, whiny-voiced fabulist Cunningham. He’s even less thrilled when they’re sent to impoverished Uganda instead of his imagined paradise of . . . Orlando.
Arriving at their destination, they find villagers living in desperate poverty, nearly all with AIDS, and oppressed by a violent neighborhood warlord who’s planning on forced circumcision of the women in the village, including the lovely Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels). No wonder the resident Mormon missionaries haven’t converted a single one of the locals.
You expect Nabulungi and leading-man-type Price to have a romance — that’s where the typical musical would go. But instead Price has a crisis of faith, and it’s up to Cunningham to save the day and the girl. He can’t even get her name right, calling her Jon Bon Jovi and Neutrogena, among other things. But the improbable pair strikes real sparks in their romantic duet, a double-entendre fest called “Baptize Me.”
Larsen and Quarrels are fine singers and actors in a cast that capably swings from Broadway showstoppers to rock to traditional African sounds and even a hint of Fela Kuti. But the whole show pivots around Strand’s hilariously oddball Cunningham. The one small flaw in Wednesday’s performance was that he didn’t quite display the vocal chops needed for his big end-of-act-one number, “Man Up.”
“South Park” fans will enjoy that old Parker-Stone favorite, a visit to the underworld, in a spectacularly staged number called “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” featuring a heavy-metal Satan and his minions Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochran. In a nod to the Mormon prohibition of caffeine, there are a couple of dancing Starbucks cups, too.
The show also takes a couple of shots at “The Lion King” and its vision of Africa. But despite all the F-bombs aimed at God and the gleeful mockery of organized religion, race is where “Book of Mormon” really dances on the edge.
Hard to imagine that another show today could get away with its depiction of credulous Africans falling for a white man’s promises of salvation via a sacred book — especially when that book is Cunningham’s desperately improvised version of Mormon history, complete with the Starship Enterprise, scenes from “Lord of the Rings,” and, well, sex with frogs. But the all-white, all-male missionaries’ cluelessness is on vigorous, Osmond-esque display in a number called “I Am Africa,” which gives the villagers a turn at rolling their eyes.
This touring version of the show is a well-oiled machine, but it never just goes through the motions. “The Book of Mormon” is entirely its own thing, and you don’t want to miss it.
THE BOOK OF MORMON
Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone.
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Parker.
Presented by Broadway in Boston.
At the Colonial Theatre through Oct. 11.
Tickets: 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.