LOUISVILLE — If even after all the Tony Awards and rave reviews, you find it hard to believe that the notoriously bad boys of basic cable who created South Park became the toast of Broadway in 2011, Louisville's touring Broadway series is here to help.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone's musical The Book of Mormon opened this week at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts for a two-week run. The length of the engagement serves to announce the show as an event in the series that usually books only one-week runs.
For fans of South Park, The Book of Mormon is everything you want, particularly the raunchy and irreverent second-act numbers Joseph Smith American Moses and Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.
You can tell Parker and Stone channeled their inner eighth-graders writing a lot of this. But there is also a mature look at faith and identity that comes to the surface as the show progresses.
Parker and Stone are aided in Mormon by Robert Lopez, whose credits include another notorious Tony winner, Avenue Q, and music for the Disney film Frozen, including the Oscar-winning hit Let It Go.
Pure fans of tuneful, fun Broadway romps who are not easily offended — take that last phrase very seriously — should also have a great time with the story. Elder Price (played here by Mark Evans) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) are idealistic young Mormon missionaries sent into the heart of war-torn Uganda to preach the gospel according to Joseph Smith.
The opening numbers, Hello! and Two by Two, depict a Mormon experience many Americans are familiar with: earnest, polite young men ringing doorbells to tell people about their faith. Hello has a lot of fun with this, including the missionary getting no answer and another shouting, "Have fun burning in hell," after a rejection.
Elder Price is Mr. Mormon, dreaming all his good deeds will win him a cushy assignment to his dreamland of Orlando, Fla. Instead, he is paired with perpetual screw-up Elder Cunningham, and the odd couple is shipped to an African hellhole. Immediately, their luggage is stolen by a warlord whose name we cannot print in a family-friendly paper (Parker, Stone and Lopez, y'all).
The missionaries' and their Mormon colleagues' preaching falls on the deaf ears of people much more concerned about war, disease, famine and poverty than religion. Every time Price or others try to preach, they are answered by a man who declares a particular hygienic problem in a sensitive area.
Price's faith is broken at the very moment Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube) and other villagers are ready to hear the message of Mormonism. Leading the villagers falls to Cunningham — who has never actually read the Book of Mormon because it's boring. He gives them a fanciful interpretation with heavy doses of Star Wars, J.R.R. Tolkien and unnatural acts with frogs.
The cast is uniformly steeped in the Parker-Stone sensibility, able to deliver the craziest lines matter-of-factly and embracing the bizarre nature of the show. In the leads, O'Neill, Evans and Ncube are pitch-perfect, particularly O'Neill as the goofball making things up as he goes along. The full ensemble also deftly pulls off big showstoppers with ease, helping fill the gulf between the expected and unexpected of the Broadway show.
Is it raunchy and offensive? Absolutely, and I and a fellow critic detected there were audience members who did not know what they were getting into Wednesday night. If you are easily offended by scatological, sexual and religious humor, you should pass on The Book of Mormon.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a remarkably good sport about the show, considering it basically says the faith is stupid. The Mormon Church even bought ads in the playbill with snarky lines including, "The book is always better."
Through the off-color humor, the characters grow, reaching some meaningful realizations about themselves and seeing the world around them as it is.
If it makes you a believer in anything, it would be the South Park guys' ability to write a heckuva a Broadway show.