“When you pitch this show, you don’t get a lot of laughs,” Robert Lopez said in these pages about The Book of Mormon. And it’s true that the musical, broken down into its disparate elements—Uganda, famine, warlords, AIDS, female genital mutilation and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—doesn’t exactly sound like a feel-good crowd-pleaser.
But the key to this religious experience is its Creators: The show was begat by the holy triumvirate of Lopez, one of the minds behind Avenue Q, and South Park architects Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In their hands, this collection of distasteful topics for musical comedy is transmuted into a piece that’s…well, still pretty distasteful, and often gleefully vulgar, but somehow also optimistic, respectful and full of hope and heart.
The story follows a pair of Mormon missionaries, the straitlaced Elder Price (Nic Rouleau) and spazzy Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt), assigned to spread the gospel of Joseph Smith in a depressed and deprived village in northern Uganda. (A hefty haul of gags revolves around Orlando-obsessed Price and his fellow Mormons expecting Africa to be like Disney’s The Lion King.) Price grows disillusioned when changing the world for the better turns out to require more than fervent prayer, while the misfit Cunningham, who has a tendency to make things up when he gets nervous, finds his purpose by winning over the villagers with a Fractured Fairy Tales version of the actual Book of Mormon.
The accomplished score both celebrates and upends the American musical-theater tradition, just as the narrative mocks some strictures of organized religion even as it honors the transformative power of faith and religion’s community organizing. Audience members in the know will recognize musical and visual references to shows such as Wicked, Annie and (of course) The Lion King. (Parker, Lopez and Stone share credit for book, music and lyrics, while the stalwart Casey Nicholaw is responsible for both the witty choreography and codirecting with Parker.)
What’s maybe most astonishing about the new Chicago production—officially billed as the second national tour but committed here for at least six months and probably more—is that its cast improves upon the original Broadway ensemble. Rouleau finds a comic-dramatic grounding in Elder Price’s crisis of faith that wasn’t present in Tony nominee Andrew Rannells’s surface-y performance, but Platt’s sneak-attack ninja take on the jittery Cunningham—a tad too cartoonish in Josh Gad’s also Tony-nominated portrayal—is the breakout star turn here. Platt’s preternatural brilliance is the kind of stuff churches get founded on.