During Tuesday night’s opening of “The Book of Mormon” in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the expressions of feigned horror that appeared on some faces in the crowd during the first act quickly faded into stuck-on grins.
There they remained, for the most part, through blasphemous songs about unspeakable acts, unholy references to unmentionable body parts, simulated acts of the most unprintable nature and choreography even Beyoncé would be embarrassed to perform.
Anyone who may have worried if Buffalo was ready for “The Book of Mormon,” just off a successful six-week run in Toronto, should stop worrying now. Ushers reported only two audience members fled for the exits during the first act (a few more likely left at intermission) during the sold-out performance, a surprisingly low tally given the supposed conservatism of Buffalo’s theatergoers.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s breathlessly funny and strategically offensive show is surely the most vulgar, foul-mouthed and sophomoric piece of theater ever to appear in the vicinity of a Broadway stage. It is also one of the smartest and most emotionally savvy, inserting devastating critiques of religious hypocrisy and American values into a package guaranteed to beguile all but the most jaded theatergoer.
That it happens to contain two of the best musical theater songs of the last decade – “Turn it Off” and “Hasa Diga Eebowai” – elevates it even further. The show, because of the way it surrounds its deeply anti-religious message in layer upon fuzzy layer of charm, sits in a category somewhere beyond mere entertainment. (It floats in the same galaxy, if not quite the same solar system, as Tony Kushner’s similarly Mormon-obsessed “Angels in America.”)
It is a perfectly plotted story about the naiveté, disillusionment and eventual triumph of two young Mormon missionaries who set out on a journey to Uganda in search of new recruits. When they find instead is disease, war and poverty on a scale unimaginable to their unworldly minds, and against this backdrop their idealism has a chance to play out in alternately hilarious and touching vignettes.
Elder Price (the gifted Mark Evans), whose idea of paradise is Orlando, Fla., is the alpha Mormon of the pair. He plays the straight man to Christopher John O’Neill’s bumbling but thoroughly charming Elder Cunningham, who finds the actual Book of Mormon boring and jazzes it up with references to Mordor, the Starship Enterprise and Ewoks in order to help recruit new members to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (The church is using the show as an public relations opportunity and bought three ads in the Shea’s program.)
A show as high-profile as “The Book of Mormon” has no trouble attracting high-profile talent, and this cast delivers. The coup de grace was O’Neill’s marvelous performance as the bumbling but affable Elder Cunningham, with finely-tuned comic performances from the entire ensemble, especially Grey Henson, whose portrayal of a tortured, closeted missionary is both heartbreaking and hilarious.
Stone and Parker, who mastered the art of provocative storytelling in their ongoing series “South Park,” have created a musical that explores the space between the hypocrisy of religion and the beauty and power of human imagination. What’s more, they’ve put all these big ideas into a package so gleefully sophomoric and unrepentantly offensive that we absorb them without even noticing that they’re there.
That’s worth something much more than the nine Tony Awards the show won or the millions of dollars it has raked in since its opening in 2011. It’s worth our attention.
Four stars (out of four)
What: “The Book of Mormon”
When: Through Sunday
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: Sold-out, but 20 lottery tickets are available 2 ½ hours before each performance.
Info: 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org