- by JJ Mortimer
"The Book of Mormon" at the Pantages Theater was both my first visit to that particular theater AND into live plays in general. I feel I may have been spoiled for any future attempts at viewing other plays.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone (more Parker than Stone) have created an extremely entertaining comedy that delves into ideas of the Mormon faith that they once touched upon in two particular episodes of "South Park" in years past. The story involves Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two Mormons reluctantly (and oddly) paired together to go on their two-year Mission to spread the word and faith in the Book of Mormon in Uganda. Price is the eager, pristine go-getter who knows the Book cover-to-cover while Cunningham is the overweight man-child that nobody wants to be friends with (think of a nicer, more caring version of Cartman from "South Park" and you get the idea). Cunningham also knows nothing of the scripture, because he hasn't really read it.
Hoping to spread their faith through good cheer and optimism in an impoverished African village, the two Elders are brought face-first into the hells of the real third-world - AIDS, famine, dysentery, baby molestation, maggot infestation, and and evil warlord (with a name you must hear aloud to truly understand the hilarity of it) are but a handful of things plaguing the village, making it difficult for the Elders to help the villagers see past their anger toward a God who would make them subject to such ills in this world. The two find that bringing the Word of God is much more difficult here than in, say, Orlando, Florida.
Upon reading the above description and the harshness of the world the Elders have entered, you would assume this was a drama of real-life crisis, but there's the greatness of the play - it takes real-world issues, and finds a way to involve the highest sense of humor one could imagine and inject it with the other touchy subject of religion, all without becoming distasteful or meaningless.
The songs are catchy and diverse, never once getting dull or boring in its two-hour run time. Trey Parker's distinct taste in comedic, filthy dialogue and wry wit make for a tale that both pokes some fun in the Mormon religion, but never quite "makes fun" of it. As with "South Park", Parker and Stone have been able to be one of the very few creative minds in Hollywood that walk the line between both sides of everything, never quite choosing a side in religion or politics without playing around and having fun with both points of view. Watching this play, you never get the feeling that they dislike the Mormon religion - they just have a sly way of seeing some questionable holes in their idea of faith, and how it may not translate to other people in the world without a little "fibbing" of the source material (as the play points out, Joseph Smith himself maaaay have fibbed a bit in his translation of the Word of God). The understand "satire", and have faith that the people watching the play understand just what "satire" is. If you don't, here's a link to the definition.
If I were to see this play when it first premiered in 2011, I would have a hard time selling people to the idea of a story that seemingly takes a belief in God and pokes fun at it, but that's just the thing - it HAS FUN with the Mormon faith, but still allows the Mormon main characters to be the heroes and ones you can look up to BECAUSE of the words they are spreading. The play treads finely along the line of satire without being pompous or forcing a view upon anyone, all the while showing faith and religion as a harbinger of hope rather than a harbinger of doom (as with many religion-based stories being told today).
What Trey Parker conveys in his writing is that it's not what's in the words of a book that matters, but the greatness in what particular words can accomplish that makes all the difference in people's lives, as long as they're well-meaning and bring happiness to the people who believe in them. All I can really say is that everyone I've spoken to has loved "The Book of Mormon", and this coming from people of all different religious and good-humored backgrounds. The music is fantastic, the actors are perfectly cast, and the set pieces are colorful, creative, and just the kind of storytelling you would expect from the creators of "South Park".