Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Book of Mormon! The Musical: Worth the 20-hour road trip

Author's note: The following post will contain mature language and themes.  Just warning you!

I might be going to Hell for this, but I loved The Book of Mormon: The Musical!

Myself and three friends left Brampton, Ontario on Friday evening, to arrive in New York City on Saturday early evening to see something that could only be witnessed in person.  Jenna, one of the loveliest people you will ever meet - and the biggest Broadway geek in the universe - had this idea earlier this year to take a roadtrip for her birthday to see this show.  I have the privilege of being introduced to some of the best works in musical theatre by this wonderful woman, so this was something I really couldn't pass up.

I must take a moment to give a big 'thank you' to Jenna, Graham and Lisa for being such great friends in helping me out on this trip - especially this being a trip to celebrate Jenna's birthday.  I'm currently in between careers without much money for myself these days, and had earlier politely retract on a matter of making sure I was fed and had a roof over my head.  They had told me that it wouldn't have been the same if I wasn't with them, and they would help me out for this trip.  They knew my personal strain, and wanted to help relieve the pressure and have some fun.  I'm very glad to have this support system, and I had a great time, despite the consistent travel and motion sickness.  The company made it bearable, thankfully - I couldn't think of anybody else I'd rather be stuck in a car with for 20 hours.  Dan Savage podcasts, Cosmo magazines, the surprising 'Americanized' portion of the extra-large Timmies, all-day breakfasts and getting lost in a really scary part of Newark and dealing with actual traffic in New York City.  (At least it was slow enough for me to take some pictures, the tourist that I am!)  That's all part of the magic of the roadtrip, baby!  I must give credit to the beautiful scenery in upstate New York, I had abandoned an already-defunct knitting project and admired what I could while the car zipped by.  Some of these photos were taken by Jenna, our navigator riding shotgun.  Map-reading skills are tricky, so I have to give her credit for 'getting us lost' on really unique scenic routes both on the highways and in the city.  We were just too concentrated on finding road signs to take pictures at times. 

We had arrived into the city later than we really wanted, with just enough time to check out the awesome hotel room we acquired at the Herald Square Inn (you should have seen this bathroom - double sinks, a soaking tub and rainfall showerhead!), change and head to the theatre for our tickets.  We were hoping for a little sightseeing time, but I think we were happy enough to survive traffic and make it in one piece.  We had walked through Times Square from our hotel in Harod Square to get to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway, and we managed to snap a few pictures on our scenic city walk.  I was feeling a little 'off' myself when we arrived into the city; I think I had experienced my first bout of 'motion sickness'.  Not pleasant.  Thank goodness for Jenna and Gravol.  Damn right I took a shower when I got back, are you kidding me?

Aaaaand that takes us to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, the current home of The Book of Mormon: The Musical!  "I would like to share with you to the most amazing show!"  Written by two of the most brilliant satirists of our time, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, this musical is nearly the complete opposite of what you would expect from what could be considered 'low-brow humour' from their award-winning show, South Park, currently in its fifteenth season.  Parker and Stone showed no mercy in a quest for calling out ignorance - be it religion, politics, celebrity status, social issues.  They've never been shy about voicing opinion, using South Park as a soapbox of sorts, clearly being educated on both sides of the coin.  These guys are insistent on portraying The Book of Mormon as a separate entity in itself, even calling it "an atheist's love letter to religion."  Beyond the moments of 'shock and awe' and questionable humour, the sweetness of it all seems to explain the setting of its satirical twist.  Parker has said in many interviews that "Mormons are so nice, it's hard not to like them!"  I can attest to that - I know many Mormons, and they are some of the nicest people that I know.  And I'm not a Mormon myself, and I don't subscribe to their beliefs per say, but I do certainly respect them and appreciate what goodness they bring to the world.  And, hey, I'll be honest - overall, I didn't find this show offensive.  I found it to be one of the greatest and sweetest pieces of theatre satire in modern history.

The story starts with two wide-eyed missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, ready to make their mark in the world, only to be sent to a place as far from Salt Lake City as you can get - Uganda!  While these companions would make for an awkward 'Odd Couple' a la Mormon comedy, it turns from a searingly, almost unwatchable satirical genius to a heart-swelling coming of age story not only for these young men, but for the people in the village they live, where disease, poverty and famine are rampant.  Their faith is tested in a land they believe God forgot about, resulting in desperate measures for power, protection and survival.  The presence of the Mormons in this village are portrayed simply as goodhearted people who mean to bring the same, uh, 'questionable' spiritual happiness that exists in their lives.  Swept up by the 'unique teachings' of an eccentric Elder Cunningham - who had admitted to his companion, Elder Price, that he hadn't fully read the Book of Mormon because he found it "really boring" - the villagers are ready to learn how to achieve their own 'Paradise' and declare their desire to be baptized by the Mormon Church.  The other missionaries praise Elder Cunningham, unaware that he's a pathological liar (!) and had filled the unread gaps with random stuff from Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and other epic geek stories he loves that he could use to keep the villagers listening during his teachings.  (This character and Chris from Family Guy would make the best of friends!)  With a visit from the Mission President to their district, the villagers surprise their honoured guest with a performance of what they had learned about the wise American prophet, Joseph Smith, and how he came to find the golden plates in "ancient upstate New York" - to Elder Cunningham's horror.  How is he going to explain that the villagers believe that the angel Moloni came down from the starship Enterprise to deliver his message from God, Joseph Smith's AIDS were cured by having sex with a frog, or that he died of dysentery - amongst other 'altered' details?
I don't want to tell you anything more about that.  Let's just say, if you're familiar with the previous renditions of Stone and Parker's deities and their forms in South Park (God constantly appearing as a hippopotamous-cat-monkey Buddhist throughout the series, the whole 'image of Mohammed' scandal, Jesus and Santa battle it out for rights to Christmas, the "Super Best Friends" join forces to defeat illusionist David Blaine in Season 5), you've got the tip of the iceberg.  It was an incredible performance, with such conviction.  I could imagine the direction for these actors, that these 'silly stories' are considered actual canon for these new converts, who could identify with these portrayed struggles personally and find renewed faith in something they could relate to so well.  It somewhat echoes the final moments of the South Park episode "All About The Mormons?", when a misunderstood Mormon family moves into the neighbourhood.  Their son, Gary, befriends Stan, and his family converts to Mormonism.  The teachings of Joseph Smith only make Stan more skeptical, and becomes more infuriated when Gary doesn't challenge him, ultimately criticizing his lifestyle.  The episode then takes a turn to defend the religion when Gary stands up for himself: "Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up.  But I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that.  The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. ... All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion. … You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.  Suck my balls."

Many, many moments of jaw-dropped "Holy shit, did they just say that?" moments.  I expected these moments, maybe not in the context in which they were put.  "Holy shit, did they just sing 'Fuck you, God'?"  "Was that a joke about raping babies to cure AIDS?"  "The Mormon Scripture really says that? What is this, Scientology?"  "That guy just got shot in the face!"  "Uh, I don't remember Boba Fett, the starship Enterprise and Hobbits ever mentioned in the Book of Mormon?!"  There were a few more mini freak-outs in the heat of the moment, but I can't really remember them all.  Funny thing is, it was all in context, which is always the most important thing in comedy.  George Carlin was a wordsmith when it came to this, and the timing and appropriateness all seemed to fit given circumstance and setting, albeit uncomfortable.  There were a number of moments where you could hear a pin drop after particular lines and scenes, making those points all the more real through moments of absurdity. 

The entire ride home, we were singing what we could remember from the score.  We are hoping we can get our hands on a cast recording of some type soon.  Either way, it was a great weekend with amazing friends, and we're really lucky as theatre enthusiasts to get a chance to see a show like this.  We got so riled up at one point on the way home, we were goofing off like primary school kids on recess at a rest stop, we had so much energy.  Something like that isn't mentally healthy to keep bottled up in the car.

The Book of Mormon: The Musical has a great place in poignant modern theatre that could really help shift a movement of communication through the art of reckless comedy.  And it's the fuckin' funniest show I've ever seen in my life.  If there was some way I could afford to see this again and again, I would not hesitate.  If you have an open mind, a love for the absurd, an updated passport and a weekend to kill, buy your tickets and fill the tank - and make your way to the Mecca of theatre to witness a miracle!

Oh, and a little apology to New York City for leaving a Long & McQuade bag full of puke on the street.  I'm really, really sorry.  When you gotta go, you gotta go.  

Source material from Slate.com.

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