I was curious about the changes to Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone’s THE BOOK OF MORMON, which underwent revisions before its post-pandemic return to Broadway in 2021. I imagined a substantial overhaul of the material, along with input from co-director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Parker also co-directed). After seeing the show, I can state the changes are minimal. All of the musical numbers are the same, and some of the dialogue may have been altered. But I don’t buy that the Ugandan characters have been given more agency or power.
Rewatching this musical in 2023, I conclude that THE BOOK OF MORMON has an identity crisis. The claim that a musical from the SOUTH PARK creators should be no holds barred and spare no one isn’t justifiable. Instead, the musical is essentially bifurcated: One major part of the concept works, the other is problematic and unfunny. THE BOOK OF MORMON remains a brilliant satirization of organized religion, and of course, specifically Mormonism. When the musical punches up specifically to make fun of the earnest young white men setting off on their Mormon missions, it works and the laughs come easily. I was reminded especially of how astutely the musical depicts religious suppression, particularly in the number “Turn It Off.” When golden child Elder Price and his goofy mission companion arrive for their mission in Uganda, the former is particularly dismayed that it’s nothing like the sunny Orlando, Florida of his dreams. In an effort to cheer him up, regional leader Elder McKinley leads his fellow Mormons in a number about turning off those bad feelings like a light switch. The number is uproarious, and it’s a microcosm of the blatant skewering of organized religion. THE BOOK OF MORMON reminds us that many of the most devout will go to absurd lengths to cling to their arbitrary beliefs.
When it comes to the portrayal of the Ugandan characters, however, THE BOOK OF MORMON is deeply problematic. Even with the revisions, the Ugandan villagers are reduced to broad stereotypes, and it’s these characters who give voice to the most uncomfortable jokes in the show. The narrative threads about 80% of the villagers having AIDS, the myth that raping virgins or babies will cure said AIDS, and a General who performs female genital mutilation are still alive and well in this revised version. The crass jokes seem racist, especially given that the Mormon Elders are entirely clueless when it comes to these situations. The Uganda villagers are depicted as without agency, means, or opportunity. It’s uncomfortable, and because there’s no nuance, it’s racist. Even Nabulungi, the show’s female protagonist and the most fully fledged of the Ugandan characters, still lacks pretty much all agency.
THE BOOK OF MORMON has some self-awareness when it comes to its problematic elements. Take the number “I Am Africa” in which the missionaries revel in their successes converting many of the Uganda villagers to Mormonism. The missionaries spew their problematic beliefs and triumphs in the song, while the Ugandan villagers look on with disgust at their complete lack of awareness. The number works well, but the irony is that that same understanding isn’t carried throughout the show.
While the show has it successes and its major problems, this tour cast is superlative across the board. Sam McLellan is a phenomenal Elder Price; he’s cocky, flamboyant, and embodies the character’s real go-getter energy. He also has excellent face play. Understudy Evan Lennon took on the role of the goofy Elder Cunningham at the performance I saw, and he was fantastic. Lennon has a great elasticity to his movements, and it’s particularly fun to see him strut on stage with his scrawny stature and Star Wars backpack. Together, McLellan and Lennon are a great study in contrasts for the show’s dynamic duo. As Nabalungi, Berlande is the best belter in the entire cast; she nails both of her solos. And while his character is problematic, Dewight Braxton Jr. makes the most of it and has great comedic timing as the General.
Ultimately, the satirization of organized religion at the core of THE BOOK OF MORMON is hilarious and exceedingly clever. But even with changes to the show, that main narrative thread doesn’t negate or solve for the problematic parts of the musical.
THE BOOK OF MORMON national tour runs through April 16, 2023 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph Street.
Photo courtesy of Broadway In Chicago
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com