Funny, irreverent, crude, witty, clever, lyrically and vocally adept … and I did mention darn funny, at times hilarious, didn’t I? The Book of Mormon is one of the most anticipated musicals to be staged in Melbourne has opened to much merited fanfare. This religious satire now, well and truly, deserves a long stay here. Playing to stereotypes and with a series of popular culture references, I saw for myself what all the hoopla was about.
The show is a rolled gold hoot from start to finish. I have not seen anything quite like The Book of Mormon before. Not for naught did it win nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the Grammy for Best Musical Theatre album and four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. The cast of 23 is led by A.J. Holmes in an extraordinary, engaging, nuanced and highly entertaining performance as Elder Cunningham and Ryan Bondy, confident and assured, as Elder Price. Both come directly from playing the roles on Broadway, in the West End and across America. They are joined by the beautifully voiced Zahra Newman as Nabalungi (Miss Julie), Bert LaBonté as African tribal elder Mafala (Richard III) and Rowan Witt as Elder McKinley (Into the Woods). The Africans’ feared adversary is a role filled by Augustin Aziz Tchantcho.
The Book of Mormon premiered in March 2011 at New York’s Eugene O’Neill Theater after nearly seven years of development and has now played more than 250 consecutive weeks of fully sold out shows on Broadway. It is the same story at other theatres around the US, where is has passed 170 weeks … and so, too, the 1,200 plus performances thus far in London’s West End, where it opened in February 2013. Everywhere it has played, it has smashed box office records and is set to do the same here. It has already broken the house record for the highest selling “on sale” period of any production in the Princess Theatre’s 159-year history.
Book, music and lyrics (delightful as they are) are by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (best known for creating the animated comedy South Park) and Robert Lopez (co-composer and co-lyricist of Avenue Q and Frozen). Co-directed by Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon is choreography by Casey Nicholaw, with set design by Scott Pask and costume design Ann Roth. The musical starts with a quick, quirky and humorous pantomime about the formation of the Church of Latter Day Saints and then we are into the body of the story. That is to say, a creative number about the modus operandi of the ever-cheery church elders, in Utah, all dressed the same, with crisp white shirts and thin black ties, pressing mock doorbells and trying to convert the masses.
The unfamiliarity with the music is of no consequence because the numbers – one after another – are catchy and have a way of eating into your psyche, seemingly effortlessly. That is when you are not laughing yourself silly at the audaciousness of the writers and the white-hot execution of the performers, who don’t miss a beat.
After a few months of study, the elders in training are matched – that is paired up with a colleague who has to stay by their side (rule 72) – and dispatched to various parts of the globe to sprout their message and extract conversions. The first few are delighted with their postings and then it is the turn of the cocksure Elder Price who is about to get far more than he wished for, or dreamed of. As a nine-year-old his parents took him to Orlando, Florida and he fell in love with the place. He has always dreamed of winning placement in that community. Instead he is paired up with a perpetual liar (a golden rule of the church is never to fib), Elder Cunningham. He lacks confidence, is friendless and is prone to blurting out the inappropriate because it seems he just can’t help himself from doing so. The kicker is they are to be sent to deepest, darkest Africa – namely Uganda.
There is a great deal to love in The Book of Mormon, which redefines the possible in musical theatre. Above all, for me, it was the political incorrectness, the fun, frivolity and hijinks that appealed, not to forget the terrific music and flawless performances. It keeps a rapid pace throughout. There is so much going on, all the time, so a second viewing would simply add to one’s enjoyment. Just be aware if you are easily offended by bad language, the show contains liberal doses of it. For me, it just added to the unforgettable flavour that I am certain to taste again because, make no mistake, this is one heck of a production. Enjoy!
The Book of Mormon is playing at the Princess Theatre for an indefinite season. It is a winner through and through – simply sensational.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Book of Mormon (QPAC) – theatre review
- Hand to God (Alex) – theatre review
- Bring It On, The Musical (touring) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television