After three decades of witnessing theater extravaganzas like The Book of Mormon, which launched ASU Gammage’s new season this week, I can sometimes find my attention wandering from the spotlight. In the case of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s irreverent book musical, I was more interested in the adulation with which the show was received than I was in seeing baptism being sexualized or hearing the funny song about diarrhea. I was less engaged by the wonderfully frantic choreography than I was in finding out why it took Gammage three years to book a touring production of this monster hit. Or why neither ASU nor the City of Tempe have done anything about the fact that on most nights, their great big playhouse hosts thousands of visitors, a third of whom cannot find parking spaces anywhere nearby.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy The Book of Mormon. Robert Lopez’s deeply vulgar songs about God and the Bible warmed the cockles of my atheist heart; its neatly refined performances by triple-threat performers like A.J. Holmes and Billy Harrigan Tighe and the Valley’s own Alexandra Ncube were fun to watch; its irreligious take on Mormonism was a gasp-inducing hoot.
But Gammage’s heel-dragging about booking this Tony-winner, which opened on Broadway in 2011 and hit the touring circuit in 2013, meant that opening night felt more like a revival than it did a première. (The nice folks at Gammage’s Broadway Series are mostly shrugging when pushy press wants to know what took them so long to add this hot show to their schedule. "Many people were eager to see this show, and asking for it often,” public relations manager Kari Amarosso told me. “I don’t think most people were surprised by the content, I think they were just glad to get to see it.”) From its opening notes, Lopez’s score was matched note for note by a big hunk of Gammage’s overflow crowd. The effect was that of a mammoth karaoke sing-off between the performers and their audience. It became clear that most of the hundreds in attendance had been binge-listening to the show’s cast recording for a couple of years. It’s a good thing, too, because the acoustics in Gammage are as dreadful as they’ve ever been, and many of Lopez’s clever lyrics (he co-wrote Avenue Q) were lost to those of us who don’t know this score by heart. (Designed for non-amplified sound, the venue will be reworked this summer for better audio performance.)
I like this show’s Hope-and-Crosby setup about a couple of Mormon missionaries in Africa, trying to convert especially obstreperous natives who think the Bible is, as one native says, “fucking crazy.” It’s always fun to watch the creators of South Park trash the world around us, even while they do tend to rely rather too much on scatological humor and naughty words meant to shock us. And I like that, as with much of their cable TV work, this musical takes no prisoners. Even while it’s raping cultural divides and tee-heeing at organized religion, it’s lampooning musical theater itself with show-stopping tap numbers and jazz hands innuendo.
Ultimately, Mormon isn’t really about religion at all. Parker and Stone could have written a musical about Fuller brush salesmen and made the same commentary on the human condition, our desire to fit in, our capacity for believing in impossible nonsense because it explains our existence or makes us feel good. I disagree with the many critics who have lauded this show for its warmth, its “heart.” Book of Mormon succeeds because its meanness is quick and smart, and because it spares no one. Its blasphemy works because musical theater so rarely goes as far as, for example, a scene in which Jesus Christ tells a young missionary, “You’re a dick!”
I would not have traveled to Manhattan or Vegas to see Book of Mormon, but was happy to have watched its welcome in my own town. And my side-street parking citation was only a warning, so that part was good, too.
Book of Mormon continues through November 8 at ASU Gammage Auditorium, 1200 South Forest Avenue in Tempe. Call 480-965-3434 or visit www.asugammage.com.