My wife, Melissa, and I, on September 15 attended a Saturday matinee of the touring company's production of The Book of Mormon at the PantagesTheater in Hollywood. Spoiler alert: We hated it. A whole lot. We left at intermission and were glad to be out of there. We had "checked in" on Facebook, so a lot of our friends knew we were there. When I got home I saw that many of those friends had responded and expressed jealousy that we were there and they were not. I wrote a very long comment which, upon completion, I realized had become an actual review. So what the heck - here it is for the blogosphere, if you are at all interested (with a couple of grammatical corrections and added links):
Okay. First: If you are a fan of traditional musical theater, I urge you to stop reading this right now because I love you and don't want to offend you. You are entitled to love musical theater and it's none of my business if you do. So good - hope you understand.
If you're a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, on the other hand, and, like me, have loved everything they've created to date - most particularly their willingness to tear apart EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY equally, using crude and sometimes shocking imagery and dialogue while making us laugh like hyenas - you might want to consider my take on Mormon before you shell out half your paycheck to put up with the traffic and the crowds, only to walk out, as we did, at intermission and go home monumentally disappointed.
Disclaimer: I hate musical theater. I love dozens of the great songs that have come out of it (the West Side Story soundtrack, for example, is a great album to listen to - as good a record as Sgt. Pepper, in my view), but watching a whole lot of feathery people uttering a minimum amount of feathery dialogue to move the plot along between song after dance after song after dance is about as emotionally stimulating - and relatable - to me as getting carsick on purpose.
Parker and Stone, among their many delightful talents, know, love and understand musical theater so well that they have been able to lovingly parody (even rip apart) the form many times over in their work. Who can forget freshly-minted 4th Grader Eric Cartman suddenly breaking out in song - crooning longingly for his fading youth as he wishes he could go back to Third Grade? Or the brilliant (and brutal) send up of Rent inthe early moments of Team America: World Police? And then of course there's the South Park movie (Bigger, Longer and Uncut) which is itself a full-blown musical - essentially a South Park episode with all the great shocking dialogue and visual raunchiness, parody and gleeful bashing of dozens of sacred cows - and a series of fabulous, hilarious song and dance numbers.
My mistake is that I thought The Book of Mormon would be like the South Park movie.
It's a traditional musical. And not a good one. Song and dance after song and dance with virtually no dialogue to bring the parody to life. Presented by that same old Drama Club bunch we see in every live musical - earnest song and dance people who've spent their lives immersed in the whole roar/smell/greasepaint/crowd stuff and who approach this exactly the way they'd treat a revival of Guys and Dolls. Only this musical has the F-word in it a couple of times. Oooooh, edgy.
It's this singular decision by Parker and Stone - to make The Book of Mormon an actual musical as opposed to a comedy that simultaneously satirizes AND pays tribute to musicals - that destroys every attempt to exercise the humor they're famous for.
Someone getting his head blown off suddenly, shockingly, to make a gruesomely funny point works when it's a cartoon - it's simply sickening when it's presented with humans, live on stage.
Making fun of religion - which is completely fair game and which Parker and Stone have done mercilessly and brilliantly with every major faith in the past - cannot work by merely stuffing the parody into a bunch of songs. Dialogue - and lots of it - is required. Mormon uses tiny passages of dialogue between songs that is, at best, playground-level mockery and at worst just plain stupid and/or insulting in tone. Worse yet, by attempting to bring these skinny little points home via song and dance numbers (which by their nature are repetitive and leave very little room for subtlety), the effect is that of a bunch of not very bright high school arts majors mouthing insulting things about Mormonism, believing them to be clever...making them sound ever more silly and narrow-minded.
What's really curious about this mess is that Parker and Stone have already gone after Mormonism in South Park Season 7, Episode 12, All About Mormons. That episode relentlessly tears apart the "dumb"-ness of the origins of the faith while at the same time pointing out in the end that while the religion may be dumb, Mormonism encourages strong families and kindness and therefore isn't really that big a deal. I'm told that by the end of The Book of Mormon the same message would have come through if my wife and I had stayed instead of walking out. Okay, fine. If fans of people prancing about a stage for no apparent reason every other day of the year and who don't normally watch South Park can get that message from The Book of Mormon, that's fabulous.
Personally, I hereby vow that I will never again step foot into any performance space where a musical is occurring. Unless I like you a LOT and you ask me to attend your kid's high school production of Carousel. AND my admission is comped. AND you take me to dinner afterward. Okay then.
The Book of Mormon continues at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood through November 25.
A version of this post appears on Mark's personal blog, Smoggy Don's Loudmouth Soup.