The Book of Mormon
Dir: Casey Nicholaw & Trey Parker
150 min • Prince of Wales Theatre • From March 21, 2013
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are still firmly on their path to certain damnation with their gloriously irreverent Book of Mormon. The Broadway smash-hit finally opened last week after months of an advertising campaign that teased expectant theatre goers with, “The Mormons Are Coming”. Parker & Stone’s Mormons have most certainly arrived, flaunting an unapologetic middle finger right up in the face of political correctness.
On Broadway, The Book of Mormon bitch-slapped the naysayers by packing out the house night after night, garnering critical acclaim and taking a phenomenal 9 Tonys which, I must say, were wholly deserved, and by rights it should do as well this side of the Atlantic also. One would expect the creators of South Park to have penned a musical that’s rude & crude laced with humour that’s juvenile and vile, all boxes that The Book Of Mormon ticks, and does so with relish – but it is also incredibly slick, well staged and deceptively intelligent.
The show opens with a flashback to the time when Jesus visited America, which he made during those three days he was supposed to be lying in state. We are then quickly transported to modern day Salt Lake City. Before us a gaudy technicolour backdrop of the Mormon’s spiritual home stretches as far as the eye can see, with the architecturally impressive Salt Lake Temple at its heart. It’s what I imagine Walt’s infamous Cinderella Castle would look like after dropping a tab of acid, and it’s only a hint at the bashing the Disney legacy is going to take in the course of the next 2.5 hours. This simple piece of staging links the performative nature of religion with our subconscious understanding of popular culture. We’re already knee deep in satire and we haven’t even had the first song yet.
Hello. My name is Elder Price,
and I would like to share with you the most amazing book.
Hello. My name is Elder Grant.
It’s a book about America a long long time ago –
and thus our education of all things Mormon begins. The writers are smart. They do not make the assumption that everyone will know of, or understand, the Mormon phenomenon culturally or historically, and thus it’s woven into the fabric of the show. They do this musically, and even structurally, through the arc of its story. Its main protagonists are two oddly matched ‘mission brothers’ Elder Price (Gavin Creel) the golden boy of the Mormon Mission and Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) a child-like fantasist (bordering on special needs) with a penchant for sci-fi, who are paired together on their two year mission to spread the faith & gather converts. And their destination? Elder Price has been praying to the Heavenly Father to send him to Orlando, the bright centre of his Universe, but he’s going to the place it’s farthest from … Uganda!
“This is NOTHING like Lion King!” proclaims Elder Cunningham on their arrival as a rotting donkey corpse is dragged downstage. It’s a fantastic premise for satire and the show mines so much comedy gold that there’s very little respite from bowel aching laughter. It’s important to point out however, that like all great satires, it runs deeper than the comedy at its heart. The score is supremely clever and contains many memorable tunes, many of which are so because they lampoon other recognisable musicals. The Lion King may seem an easy target when most of your show is set in Africa, but every shot at the Disney giant (and there are a few) is well crafted and scores direct hits. Wicked also takes a severe beating, with a wonderfully self-indulgent showstopper, ‘You And Me (But Mostly Me)’ which doesn’t just tip a hat to Wicked, but manages to make off with half of it’s chord sequences.
The musical references woven throughout the score add a delicious extra layer to the satire. Musical stalwarts will not only hear echoes of The Lion King, but also The King and I, The Sound of Music, Avenue Q, Joseph, Lord of the Rings, Little Shop of Horrors and I’m not even pandering to cliché when I say the list goes on. The staging also bolsters this lovingly crafted homage to musical theatre. Unlikely tap sequences and chorus line moments that are impossibly incongruous and yet perfect at the same time, surprise and delight in equal measures. The Book of Mormon is not just a satire on the absurd premise of modern religions but a satire on the artform of musical theatre itself. It’s intricate and masterfully crafted with inventive ingenuity.
Gavin Creel & Jared Gertner create an incredibly endearing pair of lead characters, both of whom could have easily have been annoying or worse unlikeable. Alexia Khadime portrays Nabulungi the boys first convert with the ideal amount of naivety and innocence to allow you to believe in her willingness to convert to these outsider’s beliefs in the hope of a better life away from her village. And a special mention has to be made of Stephen Ashfield’s Elder McKinley and his shiny troop of Mormon brothers who threaten to steal each scene they flounce into.
As expected The Book Of Mormon is not just near the knuckle, it goes well past and down to the wrist. But that’s to be expected, it would be disappointing if it wasn’t. The treatment of third world issues – such as curing AIDS by raping babies(!), and warlords that insist on female circumcision – are as shocking as they are hilarious. But isn’t that exactly how satire should work? Unlike many reports, Parker, Stone and Lopez haven’t set out to rubbish the Mormon people, in fact the Mormons here are some of the most likeable characters … what they actually do is point out how most religions are built on tales of nonsensical ‘rubbish’.
The Book of Mormon is a masterpiece of musical theatre. It’s witty, clever, base, crude and even touching, finding profundity in profanity. As churches employ music to contive religious experiences amongst its congregation, so does The Book of Mormon, who already have a huge following of converts who can’t get enough of the gospel according to Parker, Lopez and Stone. I count myself one among them. But don’t go about singing the songs in public, you might just get lynched.