The Book of Mormon, the endlessly cheery, intermittently enjoyable new Broadway musical, can be defined by what it is not. It is not melodically memorable: the effective, disposable songs, by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone, plunder at least a dozen shows in the Popular Broadway Songbook, including Bye Bye Birdie, Wicked, and, so overtly that royalties should be paid, The Lion King.
The new musical’s book, written by the same trio, is not sparkling: telling the story of a pair of squeaky-white Mormon missionaries who go to Uganda to convert impoverished, Aids-ridden black natives, the show leans on the mugging of its performers rather than on the inherent wit of its dialogue to score laughs.
Most emphatically, the obscenity-laden The Book of Mormon is not offensive, unless you have not plugged into popular culture for at least a decade. Blame The Producers, the last Broadway musical to achieve such sustained and uproarious audience delight, for dispatching the idea of genuine shock: once you have laughed at the idea of a master race, the sights and sounds of a small village of northern Ugandans singing “F**k you, God” in nonsensical patois is unlikely to aggrieve. Especially when the presentation is so cosy and sweet.
It was on South Park, their long-running animated television show, and in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, their sublime screen musical, that Parker and Stone perfected the formula of sugar-coating the sour. On television, however, the half-hour format ensures that most jokes don’t outstay their welcome.
Stretched to Broadway length, the duo’s patented gags pall: in this surprisingly old-fashioned show, when we get to a trimmable production number called “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”, the comparisons to South Park reach their apogee, and not in favour of the stage musical.
The audience devours all the antics. Casey Nicholaw, who co-directed with Parker and whose previous safe-for-your-teenage-son Broadway musical credit was Spamalot, keeps his actors, especially the terrifically game ensemble who play a chorus of young Mormon missionaries, in whirring motion.
In spite of the attempt to make one of the female villagers, sung affectingly by Nikki M. James, broody towards the white guys, The Book of Mormon is not a romantic comedy. It’s a bromantic comedy, with Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells as the untidy/tidy main Mormon pair. They work hard but the result, for this critic, was comic exhaustion.