The Book of Mormon lives up to all of the hype that preceded its Adelaide season at The Adelaide Festival Theatre. It is irreverent, wickedly funny, and spectacular. In short there is good reason why it is being labelled one of the best musicals ever.
The first thing that comes to mind when you try to work out why this show is so good is that despite the fact that it is so subversive, and you’ve got to remember that in the main its audience come from well-heeled establishment, it is charmingly endearing, positive and uplifting. And this is the greatest gift, in my opinion, that creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone have given the Musical Theatre genre – they have managed to inject their punk, anarchic trademark humour that they are famous for in their cartoon creation, South Park into a mainstream art form and embellished it with the optimism, warmth and charm that Musical Theatre is known for. It is this realigning of boundaries that makes The Book of Mormon such an interesting phenomenon and for this reason alone it is worth seeing.
The other thing I really liked about the show was the intertextuality. Not only are there very direct and pointed references to other musicals like Julie Taymor’s The Lion King and The King and I, there are constant references to Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Matrix. U2 and Bono even get a mention in the number, Just Like Bono! I am Africa and at other times you would swear that leads Blake Bowden and Nyk Bielak are stand-ins for John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in The Blues Brothers.
Like The Blues Brothers, these two young Elders of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, are on a “mission from God” to baptize Ugandans in Africa and convert them to the Mormon faith. The set designed by Scott Pask, traverses between Salt Lake City, Orlando and Uganda. There is even a Dante’s Inferno-like Mormon Hell for transgressing Mormons; that guilt trip that keeps them on the path to righteousness. There is a nice framing device using a proscenium arch which at times is framed by stained glass and the Angel Moroni; at other times there is a Lion King inspired African vista with the trademark orange hues. In all cases there is a sense of caricature that draws influence from the creators’ artistic background in the world of animation.
The sense of caricature doesn’t stop with the set – it goes right through the acting and dancing styles. Firstly, there are those toothpaste commercial, whiter than white all-American smiles on the young Mormon Elders as they embark on their conversion of Africa. Elder Price (Blake Bowden) and Elder Cunningham (Nyk Bielak) are the classic odd couple as they are paired up for their mission in Africa. Super confident Elder Price and socially awkward and compulsive liar Elder Cunningham share a room and even a bed with all of the obvious physical comedy and gags that emanate from this mis-match pairing being used for maximum effect.
Among the most memorable highlights are the ensemble scenes with all of the young Mormon missionaries. Here the songs and choreography are show stoppers. Turn it Off Like a Light Switch uses precision almost jerky and caricature movements. Casey Nicholaw, who also choreographed Monty Python’s Spamalot, has a gift for creating larger than life almost cartoon-like movement yet being true to the glamorous, glitzy Musical genre.
The all-American Mormons aren’t the only ones painted by a two-dimensional caricature brush; the Ugandans don’t escape this treatment either. To be honest, I felt most uncomfortable knowing that the Ugandans were stereotyped; they had AIDS, maggots in their scrotum or sported names like General ButtF*Naked.
But I guess that’s the point the creators are trying to make – if its all right to laugh at the All-American Mormon faith and the whiter than white smile all-American boys, then why should anything else be off limits. Philosophically I get that, but I still felt uncomfortable.
And with all of the great dancing from the Africans and Mormons, really catchy songs stunning lights and set, there is a philosophy that runs through the show that sets it apart from other musicals that I have seen. There is a post-modern deconstruction of theology here. As Trey Parker says, The Book of Mormon, “is about Faith. It’s about religious feeling and what hope means. It’s about what stories are designed to do.” Where the previous Mormon Elders failed to convert the Ugandans with the conventional text book approach to their faith, the bumbling, endearing, compulsive story-telling Elder Cunningham succeeds, by contextualising the All-American Book of Mormon in a way that had meaning for the Ugandan village people. The villagers’ theatrical retelling of The Book of Mormon in a nod to the Medieval Mystery Plays, and in a riotously hilarious way shows that Cunningham’s good-natured manner converted the villagers in a deeper spiritual way than he could have imagined, or could have done with a text book approach.
But when the whole cast gets on stage for the obligatory finale with the all-American Mormon Elders and newly converted Ugandan villagers, to sing Tomorrow is a Doper, Phatter Latter Day, the reality is, you’ve still got maggots in your scrotum. As co-creator, Bobby Lopez says, “I want the musical to show people the depths of human lows – a nadir of human experience. And then lift them back up in a really true way, past where they would normally go”.
The Book of Mormon is irreverent and pushes the boundaries of decency, but it is a very clever Musical.
Review By Bob Becker