“Book of Mormon” combines topical humor with religious satire

Broadway musicals often tackle controversial and divisive topics, like segregation in “Hairspray” or the rise of Nazism in “Cabaret,” but the subject of religion has never been attempted with much success.

When the musical “The Book of Mormon” premiered on Broadway in March 2011, it surprised many that not only was it a crude, lewd and offensively hilarious religious romp, but it was also heartwarming and sweet.

From March 5 to 10, the Rochester Broadway Theatre League hosted the Broadway touring company’s production of “The Book of Mormon” at the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester. All showings of the musical were sold out. 

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-creators of the wildly popular TV show “South Park,” developed the music, lyrics and story with help from collaborator Robert Lopez. It tells the story of Elder Kevin Price, an eager young Mormon who gets sent to Uganda as a missionary. He is paired with Elder Arnold Cunningham, who is socially awkward and a self-described pathological liar.

The two land in Uganda where they futilely attempt to convert the natives to Mormonism. The cultural clash between the two groups yields many hilarious moments, particularly during the song “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” where a Ugandan proverb turns out to be a little more offensive than originally thought.

What makes “The Book of Mormon” so successful is how it is able to incorporate gut-busting humor while simultaneously making honest critiques of hot-button issues. Lyrics allude to female genital mutilation, AIDS and religion as a social construct. Even though the show opts for satire rather than dramatic assessments, the mere inclusion of these subjects makes the show much more intriguing.

While the crude and over-the-top humor may be the show’s biggest draw, the music is also well produced and eclectic. “Hasa Diga Eebowai” incorporates hand drums for a traditional African vibe, while the overpowering electric guitar in “Man Up” and “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” evokes arena rock.

Not only does the show span a wide spectrum of musical genres, it also throws in a handful of references to other famous Broadway shows. “Man Up,” which is played right before the intermission and is overlaid with previous songs from the first act, is reminiscent of the call to arms ethos of “One Day More” from “Les Misérables.” The fast-talking, storytelling structure of “All-American Prophet” is an obvious nod to “Ya Got Trouble” from “The Music Man.”

These allusions are no surprise, since Parker and Stone’s past endeavors, like the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, have exhibited admiration to vintage musicals.      

On top of the outstanding musical numbers, the production design is meticulously detailed and immersive. An entire Ugandan village is constructed on stage as well as Mormon dormitories, which add a dose of realism to the innately cartoonish show. The costumes are also impressive, ranging from the colorful Ugandan outfits to the draping robes of Jesus Christ, which is comically illuminated by LED lights.

“The Book of Mormon” has become one of the most critically and commercially successful musicals in recent years. While it is undeniably controversial and just a tad smutty, the spot-on satire and the almost disturbing level of humor makes “The Book of Mormon” a must-see to people of all religions and faiths.