The Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," a singing, dancing, profane look at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has moved beyond the category of mere show into the territory of sensation. The good reviews have been so ecstatic that the bad ones will not hurt it and the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of the cartoon series "South Park," have a built-in comedic track record that is drawing fans.
Parker and Stone have received lavish praise for accurately relating some of the faith tenets of the Mormon church and for taking the idea of religious faith seriously. The show contains several pageant-like scenes that dramatize the story of church founder Joseph Smith. The two central characters, missionaries who are sent to proselytize in a remote Ugandan village, are earnest young men who really want to help (although one loses heart halfway through their mission). One song, "I Believe," is a straightforward account of the sincere attitude of belief.
Yet the bar seems to have been set pretty low here for decent satire. It's almost as if critical standards that might be applied to other artists have been softened for the South Park-ers. The sharpest song, sung by the missionaries already in the Ugandan town, involves how they simply push uncomfortable feelings down that don't conform to church teachings - such as being gay. The number is sung with a bright, cheery "it's OK" attitude that makes it poignant as well as funny, but that's about as far as "The Book of Mormon" goes in critiquing a church that financed a campaign to repeal California's law allowing gay marriage.
Parker and Stone concentrate on the personal aspects of faith rather than the political. The church's attitude toward women (their place is within the family), which could be construed as misogyny in today's world, goes unremarked. All the Mormon missionaries are men and that goes without comment. The show's main female character, a beguiling villager named Nabalungi, makes a telling point when disillusioned by the vision of hope the Mormon missionaries bring. She notes that their "ridiculous stories" won't necessarily help the difficult circumstances of the villagers' lives.
What's more, the villagers and local warlord are drawn so crudely that the humor is overshadowed by a frankly racist portrayal of rural Africans. One villager repeatedly declares he has maggots in his scrotum and Nabalungi thinks a manual typewriter is a "texting machine." At this point, the satire descends to the level of a college humor revue rather than a Broadway musical charging $100 or more per ticket.
So why the enthusiastic reviews? I suppose the idea of a satiric look at religion in a Broadway musical format is unusual enough. Coupled with Parker and Stone's reputation for cutting-edge satire, this creates a "you've got to be with-it" pressure that's tough to resist. In addition, Mormonism is both uniquely American and not a mainstream branch of Christianity, making it something of a "safe" target (as is a Ugandan village). In terms of powerful comment - or even cutting satire - on faith in today's world and the Mormon church in particular, there is less here than meets the eye.