It was a bad week for missionaries and mad men in Boston. First, THE BOOK OF MORMON blew into town on the strength of its nine Tony Awards and buzz born of NY Times Ben Brantley’s boast that the show was “the best musical of this century.” Thank God, the century is young. THE BOOK OF MORMON is the mutant offspring of “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone–plus Robert Lopez, and if you didn’t get a ticket–don’t sweat it. This is what you missed: a talented, hilarious cast in service of a sporadically funny, dependably crude, often cringe-worthy, and eventually tedious musical about Mormons converting Africans to the Church of Latter Day Saints–Ugandans, specifically, coaxed to find meaning in the fable of the Angel Moroni and Joseph Smith’s discovery of the Golden Plates on a hill in upstate New York.
OK–it’s a stretch, but then so are the literal stories of most religions; it’s the faith these stories inspire that matters, right? So one young Mormon Elder decides to embellish those stories to make them more relatable for the Ugandans. Thus there are hilarious references to baby rape, aids, female circumcision, murder, dysentery– a laugh riot, no? NO. This is all supposed to be shocking and audacious. Well, maybe for the first five minutes. But hearing the murderous warlord’s name –General “Butt-fuck Naked”– repeated for the 10th time is at about the same level of comedy as repeating the word “poop” to a room full of 7 year-olds. My husband kept muttering something about “…the decline of western civilization as we know it….”
The show also satirizes musicals for taking care of everything with a song– like THE KING AND I’s “Whistle A Happy Tune”(and there isn’t a single song here as memorable as that), and later the famous re-enactment of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN before an audience of British imperialists. Here the Ugandans fill the same role as the hapless Siamese: they are condescended to by arrogant white people. So that’s the point. But the show seems to celebrate the idea of proselytizing for religious reasons. So I guess it’s OK to presume Ugandans have no stories from their own culture to inspire them and fill the void that only Mormonism can. (Is Mitt Romney a silent backer?) The show seems to want it both ways. Stories inspire– but what stories, told to whom, and for what reason?
Racist overtones aside, THE BOOK OF MORMON is not the first show to send up musicals, but SPAMALOT and THE PRODUCERS are infinitely more clever, sophisticated, ebulliently imaginative– and FUNNY. My condolences to the cast who have to wallow in this muck — especially the charismatic and vocally gifted Samantha Marie Ware as a young beautiful Ugandan who sparkles in a number about “baptism” as sexual climax. And then there are the talented Mark Evans and Christopher John O’Neill who play a pair of Mormon Elders as mismatched as Abbott and Costello. Now they were funny.
As for THE BOOK OF MORMON— I’m throwing the book at this one. See for yourself through April 28th at The Boston Opera House.
And now for the biggest disappointment of the week- Ryan Landry’s “M” based on the creepy Fritz Lang 1931 thriller starring Peter Lorre as a child murderer. Ryan Landry and his Gold Dust Orphans have dazzled us with cross dressing mash-ups of classic fairy tales (the upcoming PORNOCCHIO), old movies (MILDRED FIERCE, THE GULLS), and theater (PHANTOM OF THE OPRAH, PUSSY ON THE HOUSE). That man knows satire and I’m convinced he’d have won 20 Tony’s and done an infinitely better job on the Mormons than those lesser talented South Park drones.
But this time he seems to have outsmarted himself. “M” is not funny, or clever, or frightening, or insightful. It does not engage us emotionally or intellectually. It is a baffling collection of ’30’s screwball comedy conventions and inside, “trying-too-hard theater-y” jokes about breaking the fourth wall, the playwright as murderer, the critic as inept policeman, the actors stepping outside their roles Brechtian style, and so on. It’s a screwball thriller without the thrills, while Ryan seems to have taken his eye off the ball.
There’s a presumption that the original film and its plot points are as familiar to audiences as say “Death of a Salesman.” Mistake. Most of the quips, cracks and double-entendres fall flat, while an air of desperation seems to propel the actors into and out of the audience trying to move this heavy work forward. The timing is off and the tone is all over the place– neither funny nor dark — or even darkly funny. Karen MacDonald’s climactic meltdown as “M” left us wondering who the real victims were here– the actors, the audience, or the playwright himself.
And there isn’t even one big tap dancing number.
I say let’s chalk it up to Ryan’s being thrown by being invited to the big house for the first time –the Huntington’s Second stage at the Calderwood Pavilion. Ryan Landry needs no validation. Can’t wait to see his NEXT show–PORNOCCHIO at Machine on 4/26-5/26. But you can see this show RYAN LANDRY”S “M” through April 28th.