The Book of Mormon Review
Fans of the satirical cartoon South Park will know the work of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and they will be familiar with their razor-sharp wit and musical parodies. But what no one was expecting was for them to create a brilliant piece of musical theatre, bursting with charm, flare and elegance to rival some of the greatest musicals of our time. Yet this is what they have achieved in The Book of Mormon.
Their sharp eye for subversion, along with that of their partner in crime Robert Lopez – the brains behind Sesame Street parody Avenue Q, have made The Book of Mormon endlessly entertaining and, beyond that, deeply important. Yes, at times it is very crass and occasionally shocking, but the observations of organised religion and faith are incredibly insightful and thought-provoking. No matter how much the musical criticises and questions the precepts of Mormonism, you never feel it is done with malicious intent. Instead, what surfaces is a deep respect for belief, even if it feels utterly misplaced. It takes religion off the high and mighty pedestal and knocks it down to something utterly accessible and human.
Their sharp eye for subversion [...] have made The Book of Mormon endlessly entertaining
The Book of Mormon follows the adventures of two young Mormon missionaries from Salt Lake City, Utah, as they set out on their very first assignment to Africa with the sole purpose to convert the population of Uganda to their religion of Mormonism. Elder Price (Gavin Creel) and his less-than-bright companion Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) find themselves, not in the Africa of The Lion King that they were promised, but in a world populated by warlords and poverty. As their own beliefs are tested and their relationships challenged, is their faith enough to see them through?
The duo of directors Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker have done a sterling job, evoking nearly every genre of musical theatre, from the screwball comedies of the 1940s to the Disney giants of today. The production is surprisingly slick and the choreography by Nicholaw utilises every style going, in particular the brilliant first-act tap number ‘Turn it Off’ takes all the moves and style from ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’, but in the context of naive self-suppression.
Alexa Khadime brings a heart-melting charm to the role of wistful Ugandan villager, Nabulungi. Her performance of the show-stopping ballad 'Sal Tlay Ka Siti', brings tears of laughter and sadness in equal measure, quite a feat by any musical theatre standards. Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner’s double act as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham is, at times, sheer comic bliss. They deliver Parker and Stone’s hilarious jokes, but also add their own comic flair. The timing is impeccable and performed with as much naive charm as one could muster. No matter how abhorrent the joke – they range from female circumcision and AIDS – you never feel any bitterness is felt towards the intended victim.
As the show unfolds, the musical numbers get more and more elaborate, climaxing in a number bluntly entitled ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’. This sequence entails the hero of the story, Elder Price, entering the depths of Hell and is confronted by the likes of Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and, yes, Starbucks cups! The images go from the sublime to the ridiculous, inducing howls of laughter form the audience. Set designer Scott Pask has taken all the clichés from musical theatre design in order to help the pastiche, from huge painted backcloths to large and elaborate pieces of automaton that are so reminiscent of large spectacle-driven musicals. The main set of a poverty-stricken Ugandan village is award-worthy in itself.
The images go from the sublime to the ridiculous, inducing howls of laughter form the audience
The big surprise with The Book of Mormon is the score. Lopez, Stone and Parker could be considered ‘normal’ composers in their own right, as the music is complex and incredibly catchy, but what takes it that step further is the obvious respect and love of musical theatre. Every song has its roots in a different genre of musical theatre, half the fun is playing ‘spot the reference’!
The Book of Mormon is a clever balance of crudity and elegance, a recipe for comic brilliance if ever there was one. There is a reason why tickets for this show are hard to get hold of; everyone knows it’s the best show in town and they want to get in on the act!
The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre is booking until 8 February 2014.