Now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on Broadway.
Religion has always been one of the more interesting satiric targets of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. Take “Red Sleigh Down,” a shockingly violent 2002 episode in which Santa Claus and his reindeer are shot down over Iraq. The South Park boys convince Jesus (an occasional recurring character) to save Santa, who is enduring subplots straight out of Three Kings, and together they manage to extract the prisoner. As they make their escape, however, Jesus is killed, and back in the United States, a distraught Santa Claus tearfully tells the people of South Park—as he decks the town out in holiday finery and distributes toys—that from that day forward Christmas should be a day to remember Jesus and his sacrifice, for that’s what made all this Christmas joy possible. It’s an essentially conservative message (not at all unusual for the show, incidentally) delivered in this most audaciously warped way possible, somehow managing to be both sacrilegious and reverent.
That kind of sweetly profane, irreligious religiosity is also what you get from The Book of Mormon, Parker and Stone’s new musical with Robert Lopez, one of the creators of Avenue Q (which was more than a little reminiscent of South Park itself), and as a musical, it’s an unqualified success. Parker, Stone, and Lopez clearly know the genre (South Park has been evoking it and riffing on it for years), and although they have fun alluding to classics like The Sound of Music and The King and I, they don’t get bogged down in meta cleverness. The Book of Mormon isn’t staged in air quotes; it’s a full-throttle, unabashed musical, with tuneful songs and energetic choreography invariably presented with skill and verve.
As for the satire, it isn’t always so sure-footed. The two central characters, a pair of young Mormon missionaries sent to spread the word in Africa, are sharply realized, but Africa itself is treated with murky, problematic inconsistency, and the conclusion lapses into sentimentality, unwilling to face head-on the ramifications of its critique of religion. I understand why, but it still leaves me dissatisfied. As much as I applaud the heartfelt performances and the witty, nimble lyrics, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the creators of South Park have gone soft.