March 26 (Bloomberg) -- Hitler has a cameo in “The Book of Mormon,” dodging crimson flames, psychedelic twirling coffee cups and super-size honey-glazed donuts with his eternally roasting pals Johnnie Cochran, Genghis Khan and Jeffrey Dahmer.
It comes in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” the new musical’s Act II showstopper. Like “Springtime for Hitler” in “The Producers,” it’s exuberantly over-the-top, a sinister soiree with tritons, skeletons and, inevitably, a kick line with glittering top hats and tails.
Hell, in “Book of Mormon,” is a missionary outpost in Northern Uganda where two freshly minted Elders, Price and Cunningham, have been sent to pitch Joseph Smith to the natives.
So far, the eight Elders who preceded them have failed to baptize a single villager. Salt Lake City is unhappy and threatens to shut them down (just like the Save-a-Soul Mission in “Guys and Dolls”).
But it isn’t Frank Loesser the authors of “Mormon” have in their crosshairs. These are the guys who bring us “South Park” each week (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) with Robert Lopez (from the equally foul-mouthed puppet show “Avenue Q”). They share credit for the music, lyrics and book of “Mormon.”
We follow the adventures of straight-arrow suck-up Price (Andrew Rannells) and fat screw-up Cunningham (Josh Gad) from the Tabernacle in Utah to Darkest Africa.
The villagers welcome them with the oddly familiar-sounding, upbeat “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which Price and Cunningham gamely join -- until someone points out that the title means doing something unmentionable to God, an imprecation vividly underscored with flip-the-bird-heavenward gesticulations.
Got AIDS? Hasa diga eebowai! Poverty? Flip the bird. Female circumcision? Hasa diga eebowai!
The target, of course, is “The Lion King,” which takes it on the chin rather too heavy-handedly, especially in this parody of that show’s treacly anthem “Hakuna Matata.” Subtlety is not in the artistic arsenal here.
The villagers live in fear of a marauding general whose name is unprintable and who aims to mutilate the genitals of every girl in sight. Leave it to Cunningham, a natural prevaricator, to spice up the Mormon story with appearances by Darth Vader, Captain Kirk and a magic frog. Soon the natives are lining up for baptismal dousing.
The big musical numbers, staged by Casey Nicholaw (who co-directed with Parker) are throwbacks to Busby Berkeley’s Broadway, with action building on action to a highly populated delirium of singing and dancing. Along with “Hell,” the standouts are “Turn It Off,” a paean to self-denial, and “I Am Africa,” sung by the white missionaries.
Scott Pask designed the ingenious, funny sets: The proscenium is framed, Tabernacle-style; the village is a mash-up of thatch, junk and hand-scrawled road signs. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting shimmers in varied intensities of sunlight. Ann Roth’s costumes, unlike the show itself, find perfection in understatement.
Texting her people on a portable typewriter is Nikki M. James as the comely heroine; Michael James Scott is the dirty-named General.
Like several shows this season, “Book of Mormon” is too long and comes close to wearing out its welcome before redeeming itself with a strong second act. And like most 12-year-old-boys, it isn’t nearly as nasty as it would have us believe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
At the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: ***1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Average * Not So Good (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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