The Prince of Wales Theatre, London
Until January 2014
The Book of Mormon has an uncanny sense for knowing just when to ramp up the tempo and to convince you, almost imperceptibly, that you are witnessing something special. This happens about half way through the first act, once the who, what, and where of the musical- two young Mormons, a coming-of-age mission, an embattled Ugandan village- have all been firmly established. Our heroes, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, are being treated to a didactic routine by the veteran missionaries, outfitted in their ubiquitous combo of white shirt and black tie.
During the course of the song, mission leader Elder McKinley presents a stern critique of attempts to play-down homosexual proclivities. “Being gay is bad, but lying is worse,” he sings. It’s best just to turn off those gay thoughts “like a light switch”. He then leads his troupe in a swinging dance number, clapping the stage lights on and off to illustrate his metaphor. On, off, on, off. Once the lights come up for the third time, we find that the missionaries’ austere uniforms have been accessorised by a set of sequined pink waistcoats. The costume change is perfectly unexpected, but at the same time reassuring. It’s a sign that, for all its silliness and scatology,The Book of Mormon is every bit as polished as it ought to be.
The whole show thrives on moments like this: controlled explosions of wit, physical comedy, and effortless timing. Every single cast member seems to radiate this energy, whether it manifests itself in the demonic fervour with which Elder Price greets each opportunity to do “something incredible,” or in the powerful vocal talent of village resident Nabulungi (a glowing Alexia Khadime) as she awaits her suggestively-charged baptism.
Stone and Parker have employed the characteristically dark satire and gleeful puerility of South Park and Team America, but one needn’t know anything about their former work to enjoy the spectacle. The Book of Mormon is a stellar musical in its own right and pays homage to, while shrewdly situating itself within, a grand Broadway and West End canon. This is as much down to the contributory talents of Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez and choreographer Casey Nicholaw as it is to Stone and Parker themselves, self-confessed devotees of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and previous experimenters with the genre. And where Team America and its gaudy parody musical Lease cared not for any kind of depth or subtlety (“Everyone has AIDS!”), you’ll find that Mormon’s songs- breathlessly incorporating female genital mutilation and sports-related domestic abuse- are as much displays of notable songcraft as they are of brutal wit. The jokes are deviously clever and unnervingly funny, but never gratuitous.
The jokes are deviously clever and unnervingly funny, but never gratuitous
Some critics have offered the rather lazy opinion that Stone and Parker are too smug in their digs at Mormonism; others have countered that ultimately what comes across is the duo’s affection for the Church and its curious doctrine (“I believe,” sings Elder Price, to a rousing ballad that evokes The Sound of Music’s ‘I Have Confidence,’ “that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri”). Others still have dismissed the hype around it as mere fanboyish bluster. It is said to betray its own ambition and undercut its potential. But what, really, have Stone, Parker and Lopez intended to create? A savagely moralising caricature of religion, racism, and cultural imperialism? I say they wouldn’t dare to take themselves so seriously. What they have written is a musical that spends as much time poking fun at the Church of Latter Day Saints as it does musical theatre itself, while managing along the way to lampoon everyone from Mormon prophet Joseph Smith to current LDS president Thomas Monson, via Hitler and Johnnie Cochran. The Book of Mormon will not revolutionise the genre or effect an epistemological paradigm shift, but it will make you laugh like an idiot and sing its songs for days on end. In a West End bloated with mephitic jukebox musicals, is that not something incredible?
words: James Killin