The Book of Mormon
Time Out says
Believe the hype: the stage sensation is finally here, and it's every bit as brilliant as you've heard
It can be difficult for Australian audiences to receive any international musical without certain preconceptions: the rumours of greatness tend to wash onto our shores long before the tour has even been announced. When one of the biggest Broadway hits of the millennium rolls into town, the sense of expectation can be dangerously high. The Book of Mormon comes with the kind of ecstatic hype usually found accompanying a messiah. Instead, Elders Price and Cunningham turn up – which is possibly less shattering, but ultimately way more fun.
The unlikely genesis of this mega-hit is well documented; suffice to say that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brains behind South Park and Team America, made an unholy alliance with Robert Lopez, the creator of dirty puppet porn Avenue Q, to create this monstrous satire of everything. The result is a show as perverse as it is heartfelt, as clever as it is moving. It really is as good as they say.
The opening number, ‘Hello’, sets the tone as deftly and memorably as ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’defines the parameters of Oklahoma! The scene is familiar to us all: a bunch of trainee missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints are ringing on doorbells, keen to share the news “of this amazing book”. Their squeaky grins and infectious positivity are so aligned with the traditional image of the Broadway musical that the sparkly vests and tap routines that soon follow feel like a natural fit.
Elder Price (Ryan Bondy), a sweet and deluded egoist with perfect teeth, is paired with Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), an enthusiastic but undisciplined dork, and sent on a mission to Uganda. They quickly discover that it ain’t nothing like Salt Lake City. A brutal general (Augustin Aziz Tchantcho) is terrorising the village they’re based in, forcing female circumcision on all the women under threat of death. If the boys are going to convert these desperate people, they are going to have to come up with some real-world relevance quickly. Of course, a largely impenetrable tract from an early-19th-century ‘prophet’ isn’t going to cut it, so Elder Cunningham decides to bend the facts a little, to insert some local imagery into the Mormon story. It’s not as if the original was gospel.
We are on very delicate ground here – given questions of cultural appropriation and religious sensitivity – so it is something of a miracle to see Parker, Stone and Lopez simply smash through it all with a sledgehammer: the general’s name is Butt Fuck Naked; the local doctor has maggots in his scrotum; the village girl, Nabulungi (the exquisite Zahra Newman) is variously referred to as Nutella, Nutri-Bullet and Neutrogena, and that’s by the guy who is in love with her! The goal seems to be to offend everyone, but it works because they take the conceit seriously and have genuine fondness for the characters. It is satire that eats itself; the subjects are pilloried so savagely that they gain a distinct nobility from the pummelling.
It is also brilliantly devised and executed. Scott Pask’s set design – a series of cycloramas that shift from the antiseptic blue of Salt Lake City to the barren brown of Uganda and even to the fiery red of the Spooky Mormon Hell Dream – is able to suggest the cobbled-together aesthetic of amateur dramatics without looking merely tacky. Ann Roth’s costumes are frequently outrageously funny, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design is consummate.
There has been much talk in the last year about international casting, and The Book of Mormon is a textbook example of the advantages and pitfalls. Holmes, who has played Elder Cunningham in every production of the show thus far, is superb; he conveys the awkwardness of the character with a halting bark that is as hilarious as it is touching, and he swings wildly from triumphant to chastened without ever stooping to caricature. Bondy, who has appeared in all the US productions of the show, is far less successful; his Elder Price is just not likeable enough to offset his monstrous narcissism, and his voice isn’t strong enough to really make a meal of the seminal number, ‘I Believe’. It’s inconceivable that an Australian performer couldn’t have done better.
The Book of Mormon itself isn’t perfect. It has many cheap references to pop culture that are already starting to date, and one or two running gags that bomb – Nabulungi’s ‘texting’ on an old typewriter is distinctly unfunny. But these are minor quibbles; the songs are magnificent, the buried references to the history of musical theatre are too deeply felt to be token, and the characters are beautifully nuanced and poignant. It slays sacred cows both literal and metaphoric, and is probably the most consistently hilarious musical ever written. Open your door and let these Mormons in.
See what else is on stage in Melbourne this month.