Contrary to all expectations, the presentation of the white-shirted and black-tied musical The Book of Mormon at Bass Hall on Wednesday did not result in the earth opening up and swallowing the venue, and all the sinners in it, whole.
But, Lord knows, it tried.
This musical, which is the brainchild of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is as intent on offending everyone and everything within striking distance as that long-running (and gloriously irreverent) animated series. But this stage effort has the added benefit of doing its skewering with aid of an unbroken string of Broadway-worthy musical numbers composed by Parker and Stone with Robert Lopez. Maybe that is why this show has been a fixture on the Great White Way since it opened there in 2011, and has burned up the road with this touring version in a way that would make Willie Nelson envious of its durability and success.
Actually, there is a long list of reasons why this musical, with a take-no-prisoners sense of humor, is probably the best musical of the 21st century. But before getting to that, it might be helpful to provide as much plot synopsis as a family newspaper will allow for the benefit of those who have not yet been hilariously appalled by it.
The story centers on two Mormon missionaries, Elder Price (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and Elder Cunningham (A. J. Holmes). The former is a promising wonder boy, whose glistening exterior hides a heart filled with egomania and a lust for haloed glory. The latter is maladroit evangelical who is as overeager as he is annoying and clueless.
When the missions are passed around, Price longs for the antiseptic ease of a posting to Orlando, where he apparently hopes to convert the heathen masses visiting Epcot Center. Instead, he is assigned to a region of Uganda that is cesspool of poverty, disease and savage war lords, and worse still, a partnership with Cunningham. Price’s initial response to his situation is to head to the nearest bus station to escape the hellhole that is about as far removed from his Disney-clean dreamland as could be possible.
Cunningham, however, finds a better solution. He attempts to win over the less-than-enthusiastic Ugandans to his cause by augmenting his presentation of the Book of Mormon with a generous sprinkling of elaborate lies that includes a great deal of help from both Star Wars and Star Trek, as well as some creative use of amphibians that is best not discussed here.
That’s about all you need to know. Anything more might spoil the fun.
And you have probably already heard the praise that has been heaped on this show from its earliest days. Suffice it to say that all of it is justified. Every aspect of this show — the music, writing, singing, dancing, acting and staging — is exceptional by any measure.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this musical is that it owes so much more to its roots in the traditions of American musical theater than to its South Park foundation. It certainly has the snarky, biting humor of Parker and Stone’s cartoon show. But, much more importantly, it is as pure a piece of musical theater as Oklahoma! or The King and I. It just has a lot more naughty words, inappropriate behavior and less respect for anything that anyone might consider holy than any show ever seen by legions of willingly shocked, paying patrons.
There are several standout numbers that impress with their singing, dancing and staging. Among them are Man Up, Spooky Mormon Hell Dream and Joseph Smith American Moses, which all offer fabulous ensemble work, and Sal Tlay Ka Siti, an unexpectedly sweet number sung by Cunningham’s love interest, Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube).
The only way that the show did not live up to advance billing Wednesday is that it has often been suggested that, despite its obvious blasphemy, it has a warm spot in its heart for its subject religion. If that is the case, I missed it entirely (and I don’t think it was just because I had to leave this Performing Arts Fort Worth presentation before its final number because of a deadline). The missionaries depicted here are the most stalwartly self-delusional band of maniacs since the Washington Senators in Damn Yankees.
So, if you are a fan of musicals and are impossible to offend, put this show on your list of must-sees (but good luck getting a ticket for this particular run). It is more fun than slamming the door in the faces of cheerful, well-meaning young men with an important message and no fashion sense at all.