Seven years after first being introduced to Broadway audiences, The Book of Mormon has finally arrived in Sydney.
It’s difficult to think of another musical premiere as hotly anticipated in Australia in recent years and that has enjoyed the same global success that The Book of Mormon has achieved. The New York production won nine Tony Awards (including the all-important Best Musical prize), its London production won four Olivier Awards (again, nabbing Best Musical) and its Melbourne season earned two Helpmann gongs last year (Best Musical, again, was one of its accolades). The show remains a box office smash in New York and London, continues to tour across the US, and is now playing in Scandinavia. When its Sydney season was announced last September, it even set a record for the highest grossing on-sale of any musical theatre production in the city’s history, with more than 45,000 tickets sold by the end of the first day of public sales.
So, does The Book of Mormon live up to those loftiest of expectations? Absolutely! This is easily one of the best new musicals to play in Australia for years.
Written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone (the guys behind South Park) and Robert Lopez (the co-creator of Avenue Q and co-composer of the Oscar and Grammy-winning Frozen anthem, ‘Let it go’), The Book of Mormon is the story of two American Mormon missionaries, Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), who are sent to a village in Uganda to recruit members of the local community to the religion.
When Price and Cunningham arrive, they find that their fellow missionaries, who’ve been in the village for some time, have had no success with conversions. As they embark on their own efforts to spread the faith, it quickly becomes apparent the locals aren’t interested and are highly sceptical. So, what will it take to get their attention?
It’s genuinely difficult to find fault in The Book of Mormon. It has a sharp book filled with enough laugh-out-loud gags for several musicals. The score is excellent, not only instantly catchy and deep in melody, but rich in meaning and consistently effective in progressing the narrative. The well-publicised shock value in the script and music is never really gratuitous. One of the early numbers, ‘Hasa Diga Eeboiwai’, features a lion’s share of shock-value moments, but there’s a point to it – it highlights the chasm between religious doctrine and the realities of the Third World.
Parker and Casey Nicholaw (also the director of Aladdin) share directorial duties, and excel in setting and maintaining a cracking pace across the show’s two hours. Movement from one scene to the next is slick and seamless, and there are no dead spots nor any scene that lingers longer than it should. There’s also plenty of spectacle, owing in substantial part to Nicholaw’s choreography which is perfectly cheesy and brilliantly combines humour with impressive technique. ‘Turn it off’, which espouses the virtues of switching off raw and inconvenient emotion, is an Act One highlight, with a tight tap sequence executed with astonishing precision. In fact, the ensemble here is of the highest calibre and perhaps the finest I’ve seen on Australian stages. All of the performers have relentless energy and focus, taking the overall impact of the production to the next level.
That commitment from the ensemble is matched by the principal cast members, who give it all their all and then some. Canadian Ryan Bondy is wonderful as the clean cut, All-American 19-year-old, Kevin Price. His delivery of the idealistic and naïve Mormon missionary, who becomes disillusioned by a dose of the real world, is utterly convincing, and he attacks the role with gusto that never waivers.
As Elder Cunningham, the show’s unlikely hero, Holmes is outstanding. I’ve had the fortune of seeing The Book of Mormon in both New York and London, and no actor I’ve previously seen in the role matches Holmes’ performance as the socially anxious and awkward young man with a proclivity for lying. Constantly a scene stealer, he possesses a natural sense of comedy and his take on Cunningham is completely endearing.
Zahra Newman is Nabulungi, an eager and optimistic young Ugandan woman, and shines in the role. Her tender performance of ‘Sal Tlay Ka Siti’, Nabulungi’s contemplation of what paradise could mean, is a vocal highlight of the show. Bert LaBonté lends strength to his portrayal of Mafala Hatimbi, her protective father.
Elsewhere, Rowan Witt’s performance as the sexually-repressed Elder McKinley is hilarious and would upstage in a weaker principal cast. He gives Holmes a run for his money in prompting the biggest laughs of the evening.
Musical director David Young leads a nine-piece band that ensures Stephen Oremus’ arrangements are done justice. It’s a tight, stonking reproduction of every track, and Brian Ronan’s crystal clear and voluminous sound design facilitates the full-bodied delivery of the memorable score.
Capped off by Scott Pask’s gorgeous set and Ann Roth’s terrific costumes, this is a musical that manages a tick in every box, with tremendous attention to detail on show across the board.
Perhaps the most intelligent aspect of The Book of Mormon is its ultimate attitude towards religion. Rather than a world free of religious canons, the show envisages a world in which believers and semi-believers and non-believers can co-exist. While it eschews the idea of strict adherence to non-sensical didacticism – teachings that may make no rational contribution in time and context – it allows for the possibility that good can come from sharing stories that advocate positive ethics and principles. It suggests that people can be galvanised and community fostered by such sharing. Overzealous stridency of the religious and the irreligious creates ever more silos that are becoming a hallmark of today.
The bigger questions of life aside, The Book of Mormon is a remarkable evening of musical theatre. Sydney’s long wait has been well worth it. The show is both enormously entertaining and immensely uplifting. In fact, forgive my hyperbole, but it’s a truly sublime experience.
The Book of Mormon
Sydney Lyric Theatre, The Star, Sydney
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