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‘South Park’ creators see success on stage

Photo courtesy of Alona Fogel

The hottest ticket on Broadway right now is likely “The Book of Mormon,” the debut Broadway musical from the creators of “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Notorious for their raunchy, envelope-pushing sensibilities, one could imagine that a musical by them about Mormons might cross a line — or two.

In fact, it does have a handful of outrageous moments, but surprisingly, it’s overall one of the most unabashedly, old-fashioned Broadway musical comedies I’ve seen. And I mean that in the best way; it’s silly, side-splitting fun with a real heart.

The show has been so popular I had to wait in line for three hours in the pouring rain to even snag a ticket to stand in the back for the show’s final preview performance before the next day’s opening night. After seeing the performance, I knew that the show was completely ready to open and surprise everyone with how amazing it is.

Following two chipper Mormons (and, as the show gleefully asserts, they’re all chipper), Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, as they prepare to set out on their Mormon Mission, a rite of passage for young Mormon men, the show has a basic comedic structure.

Price, tall and successful, and Cunningham, stocky and inept, are as different as possible. And yet, they are stuck together to spread the word about the title text to the people of Uganda, where they are sent on their mission.

The show is essentially one laugh after another. While the story might be a bit run-of-the-mill for something so ultimately cutting-edge, the dialogue itself is quite often riotously funny.

Parker and Stone, who collaborated here with Robert Lopez (who gained theatrical fame for another brilliantly raunchy musical: “Avenue Q”) and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, manage to craft a crowd-pleaser of a show that will be appealing to a wide spectrum of potential audience members.

Fans of “South Park” will appreciate the group’s signature scathing humor on full display here, fans of big Broadway spectacles will love the many exciting production numbers and discerning theatregoers will be drawn to the show’s effortless wit and ability to give a nod to the great musicals of old, while still seeming fresh and vibrant.

The show’s music (which, along with the story, was written by Stone, Parker and Lopez) is some of the best on the Broadway stage right now. The group’s ability to combine a jaunty, hummable melody with biting, hilarious lyrics brings the show to hysterical life as soon as a character starts singing.

Many of the best songs have titles that can’t be printed in a newspaper, but with others such as “I Am Africa” (sung by the Mormons), “Salt Lake City” (or, as performed by Nikki M. James as Nabalungi, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”) or especially the hilarious parody of a scene from “The King and I,” “Joseph Smith American Moses”, the show soars musically.

The cast is uniformly excellent. As the two central Mormons, Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad are comic perfection. James, an optimistic and sweet Ugandan, has a lovely singing voice and gives the production a jolt of bright energy each time she’s onstage. Rory O’Malley in a small but scene-stealing role as another of the Mormons, has a funny number in each act. Even the ensemble is one of the strongest I’ve seen on Broadway in years.

The direction, by Parker and Nicholaw, is sharp and excellently paced and is aided by Nicholaw’s outstanding choreography. To be sure, this is one of the most thrilling theatrical efforts of late. Nothing about it feels like a first try. It really stands a good chance of winning a fistful of Tony Awards in a few months. The show plays like Parker and Stone have been writing Broadway musicals for years. And, with how much of a sheer delight it turned out to be, here’s hoping they have more on the way soon.

The Book of Mormon is playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York, NY.

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