To call The Book of Mormon ‘highly anticipated’ is an understatement in the extreme. Melbourne went wild with the news that the musical was coming to town and tickets sold like proverbial hotcakes and the hype hasn’t died down well into the show’s first week. If anything, the immense success of the preview shows (one of which I saw and am basing this review off) sent the crowds running for the ticket office all over again.
The Book of Mormon is the brainchild of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, and composer/lyrists Robert Lopez, whose hit Avenue Q played in Melbourne last year. And there’s certainly a family resemblance. The cheek and wit of Avenue Q’s lyrics is prominent throughout, but where South Park satirized anything and everything, The Book of Mormon has a more narrow focus, specifically lampooning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The story follows Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes) as they embark on their ‘mission’ to Uganda. The two are polar opposites – Elder Price is clean-cut and charming, the poster boy for missionaries around the world, while Elder Cunningham’s a fumbling dork who’s barely read the book he’s preaching. They arrive in the Ugandan village they’ll be calling home to find it ruled by a gun-toting, female-circumcision-obsessed warlord in cowboy boots. Worse, the missionaries before them have failed to convert even a single Ugandan and chances are slim that they will – so slim in fact, that the Ugandans even have a saying hasa diga eebowai, or ‘Fuck you God’ in English.
Contrary to what you’d expect The Book of Mormon is surprisingly kind to Mormons, rendering them as merely a little misguided, and thoroughly well intentioned. It even avoids making the obvious cheap jokes about Mormon underwear and polygamy. Strangely, it was the Ugandans that came off the worst. While there were indicators of self awareness (notably the Lion King-esque dancer at the start of the play and the hilarious number ‘We Are Africa’, performed by the white missionaries), the slather of stereotypical African woes (poverty, AIDS, FGM, lack of education, technological backwardness) lacked nuance and the refusal to represent Uganda in any accurate way could easily feed into racist interpretations. For an audience of predominantly white, middle-class Australians the risk was high and indeed, I doubt very much that the dowager sitting beside me was laughing at the irony.
Risk of misinterpretation aside, The Book of Mormon is a spectacular musical and certainly deserves its nine Tony awards and rave reviews. The cast, under the direction of Casey Nicholaw (who also did the choreography) is exactly on point throughout. While some feathers were ruffled when the choice to use US and Canadian imports for Elders Price and Cunningham, Bondy’s and Holmes’ performances did much to relieve our wounded pride. Holmes, whose performance of Elder Cunninham was honed on Broadway and the West End, was a particular standout: endlessly endearing, his goofy grin and perfect comic timing had the audience in fits of laughter.
Other standouts include Australians Zahra Newman as Nabulungi and Rowann Witt as closeted Elder McKinley. Newman’s voice is remarkable in its purity and range, and she played the perfect African ingénue to Holmes’ pseudo-worldly white male. Meanwhile, McKinley’s flamboyance and cheek (particularly during ‘Turn it Off’ – a song instructing gay Mormons to simply ‘turn off’ their feelings) ensured his place as a crowd favourite.
Funny, offensive and clever, the Book of Mormon is a show not to be missed. It’s currently playing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne until June 25.