Only a theater wonk would know if The Book of Mormon, the frisky new musical that is beguiling playgoers (and perhaps offending some) at the Fox Theatre, is the first show to employ the same curtain line at the end of both acts. But surely it's the only musical whose twice-heard curtain line is "I have maggots in my scrotum." That's a sentiment you don't hear every day — nor, one would hope, need to. But despite The Book of Mormon's naughty-schoolboy delight in calling attention to body parts like scrotums and clitorises, most of these scatological shock effects are mere camouflage, designed to disguise the fact that at heart the show is a sweet parable about the power of innocence and the wastefulness of pride (the kind that goeth before a tumble, as promised in the Book of Proverbs).
Why tell this parable through a lambasting of the Mormon faith? Probably because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is such an easy target for parody, allowing for sly song lyrics like "I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people." But the Mormons, per se, are not subjected to a mean-spirited pasting. The show's young turk creators — Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, whose collective credits include South Park and Avenue Q — are casting their stones at something much broader than Mormons. Their shotgun barrels are aimed at the rampant hypocrisy that is at the core of all sanctimonious organized religions.
The plot focuses on two nineteen-year-old Mormon missionaries, overconfident Elder Kevin Price (Mark Evans) and congenitally clumsy Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill), who are sent from the scenic, snowy Wasatch mountain peaks of Utah to convert the heathens in filthy, strife-torn Uganda. Kevin and Arnold encounter resistance in the intractable local warlord, General Butt-Fucking Naked; other setbacks are of Kevin's own egotistical making. The show abounds with humor most accurately described as ribald. But although Mormon makes light of such dire topics as the AIDS epidemic and infant rape, eventually its edge gets sanded down by the evening's affirming sincerity. Ultimately, Mormon is more akin to the modest yet uplifting 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (which is playing through March 2 two blocks from the Fox at Saint Louis University) than to the smart-aleck Avenue Q.
But there's nothing modest about its music. The Book of Mormon dearly loves to sing. There's not a clinker in the entire tuneful score. Although at their wackiest, Parker, Lopez and Stone seem to have inherited the genes of Ernie Kovacs and Spike Jones, many of the songs are in the more conventional tradition of classic American musical theater. The Act Two anthem "I Believe" (which is sung to the hilt by Evans) is as infectious as is "Tomorrow" in Annie. "Joseph Smith American Mormon," a folksy pageant that is staged to impress the visiting mission president (a plot point borrowed from Guys and Dolls) is a twisted riff on "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" in The King and I.
Movies get referenced too. In a dream sequence set in Hell, the comical Hitler is clearly inspired by Dick Shawn's portrayal of Der Fuehrer in Mel Brooks' 1968 spoof, The Producers. And thanks to movie fanatic Arnold Cunningham, pretty much everything that transpires here, spiritual and secular, is seen through the prism of Star Wars (though Star Trek is not ignored).
Is The Book of Mormon really the Second Coming of American musicals, as it has been hailed ever since its Broadway opening in 2011? It was difficult to render a verdict on opening night, because too many lines were lost to muddy sound. But even at less than warp speed, the surprisingly conventional show is still an uproarious projectile that startles, charms and delights. If, by evening's end, you feel the need to rise to your feet and stomp and cheer, more than likely that impetus will not be because there are maggots in your scrotum.