The Book of Mormon (Anne Garefino, Scott Rudin, Important Musicals and John Frost)
QPAC, Lyric Theatre
March 16 – May 31
The New York Times calls it “the best musical of this century” and Entertainment Weekly says it is “the funniest musical of all time.” Understandably the arrival in Brisbane of the outrageous nine-time Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” has been much hyped, in part due to its clever marketing campaign of reduced-price ticket lotteries and alike, but also due to good old fashioned word-of-mouth. Since seeing it in London five years ago, before “Hamilton” took to the top of the hottest show list and it was still one of the most elusive (and most expensive) tickets around, I have been one of its many ravers, equally abuzz with anticipation as the uninitiated audience members at the gala Brisbane opening night. And while it shows its age a little now, as satire so often does, it is still easy to appreciate how it stands as one of the most successful musicals of all time.
“The Book of Mormon” is the odd couple story of two mismatched young missionaries, Elder Price (Blake Bowden) and Elder Cunningham (Nyk Bielak) who are sent to Africa for the most important time in their Mormon lives … their mission. Naively eager to spread the divine word and help heal the world in a different place they are ill-prepared for the remote Ugandan village that they encounter, with its famine, poverty, disease and dangerous militia.
Initially the villagers aren’t particularly interested in hearing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, until Elder Cunningham starts ‘Making Things Up Again’ to keep them from getting bored by his bible stories, reconceptualising the little he knows of the doctrine with his favourite pieces of science fiction and fantasy. Just as the missionaries begin to feel connected with the people of Uganda, the mission president comes to visit and the truth is revealed in full-throttle hilarity.
The highly offensive musical is the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone – the creators of the American adult animated sitcom “South Park”. And in keeping with this, the show is utterly audacious in its gratuitous ridicule, pushing the boundaries between satire and stereotype in that “South Park” heyday way. It’s blasphemous, profane and very, very funny in dialogue and musical numbers alike as it makes light of various Mormon beliefs and practices, while ultimately endorsing the positive power of the church’s service. Despite its veneer of crudeness, the uncensored comedy is quite clever, often in its simplicity, down to the details of costumes and choreography, continuing even into the program. Indeed, it is a testament to the truly funny from start-to-finish experience that different versions of the same joke just seem to get funnier, such as each time that Elder Cunningham awkwardly messes up the name of his desired love interest Nabulungi (Tigist Strode).
“The Book of Mormon” is about more than just its shock value. Since its Broadway opening in 2011, it has received not just popular praise but critical acclaim for its plot and score. It is a highly-polished musical of international standard and its first 30 minutes are particularly tight, full of huge energetic numbers, starting with its catchy, upbeat opening sequence number ‘Hello’ in which doorbells chime as young missionaries in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints army practicing their spiels on mock doorsteps outside the church’s training centre in Salt Lake City, which sets a light-hearted tone.
The show features a kaleidoscope of memorable musical numbers, often in lampoon of contemporary Broadway styles, such are the layers to its clever story craftedness. “The Lion King” is parodied and referenced, in ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ is the first truly vulgar song in the show which ends with members of the Ugandan community giving the finger to and screaming four-letter words at God. And ‘All American Prophet’ in which Elder Price testifies in a very abridged tribute as to how Joseph Smith came across the golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon, has a “Jesus Christ Superstar” feel to its orchestration.
Across soaring power-ballads, tribal singalongs and rock anthems, extravagant sets and choreography contribute to the world class production. Perhaps the musical’s biggest showstopper, ‘Turn It Off’, in which the young missionaries share advice on how to deal with dark thoughts (“Don’t feel those feelings, hold them in instead”) comes completed with a razzle dazzle elaborate tap dance number. And when things seemingly can’t go much further, the surreal ‘Mormon Hell Dream’ sees a super spooky-wooky Satan and his minions of Genghis Khan, Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran welcoming a worrying Elder Price to his perceived consequences for leaving his missionary companion all alone.
Direction is always sharp and the performances are all first-class. Bielak is masterful as the childishly exuberant Elder Cunningham, contributing much to the show’s high energy. The very versatile Blake Bowden is every part perfect, plucky Mormon poster boy Elder Price, conveying a presence even in his stature. He carries the show solo in the inspirational ‘I Believe’ proud announcement, when, after re-affirming his faith, he confronts the show’s violent warlord villain General with determination to convert him, belting out the key track with crisp, show-stopping vocals. Also of vocal note is Strode as Nabulungi, especially in her innuendo-filled soft-rock duet with Bielak, ‘Baptise Me’ and also Act Two’s ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ repreise and purely joyous evangelical company number ‘Tomorrow Is a Latter Day’.
“The Book of Mormon” is a difficult show to review because when it comes to praise it has all pretty much been said before. The ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical will not be to everyone’s tastes; it’s a very adult show and if you don’t like bad language it isn’t one for you. But if you are ready to forget your troubles for an evening and laugh until your face is sore, it’s a book that will change your life (#believethehype).