It's scary to think that the same impulse animates empire, progressivism, the Great Awakenings of Protestantism and (egad!) even certain forms of theater criticism. The common impulse is the notion that, having supposedly perfected a particular ideology, its inventors then need to impose it upon the universe.
So, it's a mistake to conclude that the subject of THE BOOK OF MORMON, the 2011 hit Broadway musical, is limited solely to the activities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone's satirical (but only occasionally caustic) musical, a 19-year-old Elder Price (squeaky clean U.K. export Mark Evans) possesses the optimism, egotism and, above all, the fundamental cluelessness that so frequently has characterized inter-cultural interventions both wide-scale and small.
When he and second-banana Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) are sent to Uganda on a two-year tour as missionaries for the church, the two are quickly confronted by the seeming irrelevance of their spiritual recruitment quest in a country whose people are besieged by hunger, disease and civil unrest.
But for all their glitzy production values (in all-sing, all-dance numbers like "All-American Prophet"), Price's words fall on deaf ears. Tellingly, it's only when uber-geek Cunningham adapts his half-read theology (which he supplements with sci-fi pop culture) to the specific needs and dangers the community faces that an ill-planned faith initiative begins to take root.
The playwrights hardly give Mormonism a pass in this dotty musical. They specifically take the faith to task for its views on homosexuality and a change in its beliefs concerning people of color in the 1970s. But in the successes of the loopy Elder Cunningham, Parker, Lopez and Stone seem to recognize that people ultimately synthesize (and update) their beliefs based on all they value, all they've read, all they've learned and all they can imagine. If this process can occur with a group of religious dissidents in the 1820s in upstate New York, their point is that it still works today. It's enough to make this latter-day Book an unorthodox affirmation of faith.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Theatrical uprisings."