Critics Roundup: South Park creators’ musical ‘The Book of Mormon’ triumphs on Broadway

It looks as though everyone got the joke after all. Even in Utah, it seems, with no damning articles or negative reviews. Time reports:

“I was prepared for scatological humor, generous doses of the F-word, and off-color bawdiness—this is South Park without network censorship, remember?” a Mormon reviewer blogged on BeliefNet, “but I wasn’t prepared for my Mormon faith to be lampooned with any sensitivity. I was happy to be wrong.”

“I was expecting to be offended,” The Salt Lake Tribune quotes Anne Christensen, a 22-year-old Mormon New Yorker who saw a preview, “but was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly sweet it was.”

“The ,” has been seven years in the making for and , known as the creators of South Park. The “Avenue Q” composer Robert Lopez completed the creative team. It is a satirical show about Mormons who travel from Utah to Uganda – strange but true. And it’s worked. Here’s a sampling of the crits:

By smashing together cultural extremes – prim, uber-Caucasoid Mormons and long-suffering, hope-starved Africans – the creators lampoon western illusions about that complex continent (the anthem “I Am Africa” is sung by distinctly pale cast members), while scoring laughs off the sort of horrors that should never be put on a Broadway stage (“I have maggots in my scrotum” is a recurring lament by one villager). We chortle disgustedly at an African man who thinks raping a baby will cure his (a documented crime), but truly grotesque is the notion that a couple of Bible-toting white boys can be of any real help. For those of us who love a well-made musical with satirical bite, the show is manna from heaven. – The Observer

This boisterously outrageous show can feel at times oddly familiar. The laughter is steady but nostalgic, harking back to classic routines that have been refurbished with more daring expletives. Granted, it’s not easy to sustain a giddy level of hilarity over two full acts — even Aristophanes and the Marx Brothers hit stale patches. “” occasionally has that fresh-from-the-can, vitamin-enriched flavor, but it has a great compensatory weapon: the propulsive verve of a runaway hit. – The Los Angeles Times

I know, I know: You’ve been indulging for years in a little scatological side business called “South Park.” But now, you’ve discovered your true calling — as the wit-spewing class clowns of Broadway.

Along with Robert Lopez, one of the uproarious brains behind “Avenue Q,” Matt Stone and Trey Parker have devised “The Book of Mormon,” the pricelessly entertaining act of musical-comedy subversion that opened Thursday night at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

The mighty O’Neill himself would have to have given it up for this extraordinarily well-crafted musical assault on all things holy. The marvel of “The Book of Mormon” is that even as it profanes some serious articles of faith, its spirit is anything but mean. The ardently devout and comedically challenged are sure to disagree. Anyone else should excitedly approach the altar of Parker, Stone and Lopez and expect to drink from a cup of some of the sweetest poison ever poured. – The Washington Post

But the most surprising thing about Mormon, at least for those only casually familiar with Parker and Stone’s previous work, may be its inherent sweetness. The duo and Lopez avoid the self-congratulatory snark common to their generation of comedy writers in general and musical-comedy writers in particular. Neither the Mormons nor the Ugandans are mocked for their belief systems; they’re parodied for their mutual human fallibility.

If anything, Mormon celebrates, in its fashion, the capacity for faith (and doubt) that ultimately brings these disparate characters together. For all its cute, knowing moments, there is an exuberance in the show’s spirit — particularly in its score, which combines musical-theater, rock and world-music textures with above-average dexterity — that makes it feel both fresh and unabashedly traditional. – USA Today

By the end of a night more emotional than many will expect, the show is arguing the importance of finding a spiritual center, if not exactly embracing the doctrinal details of that most American of religions (and, as cooler heads may currently be observing in Salt Lake City, when you are the most American of religions, it could be seen as a badge of honor to be ridiculed on Broadway). In many ways, the rich, liberal do-gooders of “We Are the World” (the object of a hilarious Act 2 takedown) come off worse than the collection of naive missionaries trying to save the world. And “The Book of Mormon” even makes a case that it takes those suffering real pain to understand the real role of religion in our lives. – The Chicago Tribune

In the end, the message is not against Mormonism but literalism: that whatever our different myths, metaphors and rituals, the real purpose of religion is to give us a higher purpose and a sense of compassion in the universe. “The moral,” the writer Andrew Sullivan observed on opening night, “is that religion is both insane and necessary at the same time.” – The New York Times

This musical spills over with confidence in the material and cast, a roster of relative unknowns. As Elder Price, a nice but narcissistic missionary, Andrew Rannells has wholesome good looks and a whole lot of talent that shines through in every note and gesture. Josh Gad gets big laughs and shows a big heart as Elder Cunningham, a chubby screw-up with a hero inside him. Michael Potts lends fine support as a native chieftain, and Nikki M. James is so radiant as Nabulungi, the bridge between her villagers and the Americans, you wish you could wrap your arms around her and protect her from harm. Rory O’Malley leads the band of Mormon elders and he sells production numbers with such infectious energy you want to join in on stage. – The New York Daily News

But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Comedy never is:

But don’t let anybody try to tell you that “The Book of Mormon” is suitable for anyone other than 12-year-old boys who have yet to graduate from fart jokes to “Glee.” A couple of reasonably effective production numbers notwithstanding, it’s flabby, amateurish and very, very safe… The creators of “South Park” like to call themselves “equal-opportunity offenders,” but if you think there’s anything risky about “The Book of Mormon,” you’re kidding yourself. Making fun of Mormons in front of a Broadway crowd is like shooting trout in a demitasse cup. And while we’re on the subject of imitation courage, let it be duly noted that if the title of this show were “The Quran,” it wouldn’t have opened. – The Wall Street Journal

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 BirdieWicked, and, so overtly that royalties should be paid, The Lion King… 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. – The Financial Times

Let’s let Ben Brantley in his New York Times review sum it up:

This is to all the doubters and deniers out there, the ones who say that heaven on Broadway does not exist, that it’s only some myth our ancestors dreamed up. I am here to report that a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical has arrived at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the kind our grandparents told us left them walking on air if not on water. So hie thee hence, nonbelievers (and believers too), to “The Book of Mormon,” and feast upon its sweetness.

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