Trey Parker and Matt Stone have long been aficionados of American bluster. From the “South Park” movie with its marching song of “Blame Canada” to the anthem “America, Fuck Yeah!” that opens “Team America: World Police,” the duo has been preoccupied with the less subtle manifestations of American Exceptionalism. So the fact that they teamed up with Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q” fame for “The Book of Mormon,” a musical comedy about Mormon missionaries in Africa, seems almost inevitable. After all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints constitutes the theological quintessence of Americanism, a religion that places Christ’s final revelation in this country and sends across the world young, naive, determined, and clean-shaven men as new army recruits to evangelize the heathen, one doorbell at a time.
“The Book of Mormon” opens with a group of young missionaries-to-be awaiting notice of where they will be sent. Elder Price (Robert Colvin), the very embodiment of young Mormon manhood, prays for a mission field in Orlando, Fla., but is, instead, sent to Uganda with Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson), an overweight, friendless nerd with a propensity to lie as a means of coping with uncomfortable situations. This distance between corn-fed Americana and third-world poverty sets the stage for a classic “fish out of water story,” even if, at times, the “South Park” aesthetic of the story seems a poor lens through which to regard the real-world troubles of places like Uganda.
But if “The Book of Mormon” reacts with appropriate (albeit comedic) horror to local beliefs — one man seeks a baby to rape because sex with a virgin will supposedly cure his AIDS, while a local warlord demands the circumcision of all women in his domain — it does not spare our missionary friends. When not evangelizing, we watch them struggle with the likes of repressed homosexuality and self-loathing, all of which has a basis in that book they claim to adore. In fact, Elder Price’s sole motivation for being such an upstanding Mormon all these years has been his desire, on the day he dies and is elevated to godhood, to create a paradise planet modeled upon Orlando. Everyone’s worldviews are soaked in unworldliness, which makes the damage they cause self and other inevitable.
Only the awkward Elder Cunningham breaks this cycle. (And Conner Peirson’s is the stand-out performance in this production.) Finding in the lines of Mormon scripture no answers to questions of immediate concern (“Does that book say anything about AIDS?”), he begins, to hilarious effect, improvising on the sacred text, so much so that the religion he ends up preaching is far removed from the original book.
However, he does become the first missionary in this district to baptize somebody, finding a disciple in Nabulungi (Kayla Pecchioni), daughter of the village headsman. Armed with a religion that now takes their lives — and not just their souls — into account, both villagers and missionaries start the hard work of making this planet their paradise. Or as novelist Terry Pratchett once wrote: “You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?”
“The Book of Mormon” is more than a meditation upon the intersection of ideology and reality. Whether intended or not, it is also a savage critique of the white savior myth that ends up becoming yet another white savior story. But more than anything, “The Book of Mormon” literally offers a laugh a minute, an unending stream of hilarity as invested in the humanity of the characters as it is the absurdity of their situation. Who knew that such genuine pathos could so easily co-exist alongside a song about Joseph Smith fucking a frog?