It might have taken six years for The Book of Mormon to make its way from Broadway to an Australian stage, but it has lost nothing of its stinging satire and shockingly delightful filthiness over that time. The brainchild of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez, it cleaned up at the 2011 Tony Awards and is still running today.
The pedigree of its creators gives a good indication from the outset of what sort of show you’re about to see. This is MA15+ theatre at its most wildly adult themed and strong coarse language limits, and of course, it’s not a delightful introduction to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, rather a parody of the religion and in the broader context, religions of all sorts.
Telling the story of a group of Mormon missionaries graduating from their Utah training centre and awaiting their assignments around the world. The overconfident Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) is determined that his prayers to God will be answered with an assignment to Orlando, Florida, his favourite place in the world. While his classmates are assigned to glamorous locales, Price is sent to Uganda with the nerdy Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), a social misfit and compulsive liar.
Upon arriving in the war torn African country, the two young men find the living conditions have left the locals with little affection for God, and the local Elders with no converts to report of to their church leaders. Undeterred, Price and Cunningham set about bringing the Mormon religion to the locals while navigating warlords, disease and Cunningham’s inability to stick to the truth.
It’s tempting to give away some of the innumerable killer jokes that Parker, Stone and Lopez’s script contains, but The Book of Mormon is a dish best consumed fresh. Suffice to say, this crazy premise for a Broadway musical is absolutely hilarious in that most deliciously guttural form of dirty laughter. Meanwhile, musically it is full of earworm tracks that will work their way inside your head so that you’ll find yourself humming expletives for days afterwards! The score not only parodies the Mormon religion, but music styles too, so buffs will enjoying identifying musical genres including perfectly gorgeous African rhythms and harmonies, like something straight out of The Lion King. Further Casey Nicholaw’s wonderful choreography spoofs tribal dance moves that make the sequences featuring the Ugandan tribes people feel so authentic that the jokes then land with even more voracity. Nicholaw also adds a brilliant tap number to express the suppressed emotions of the missionary Elders in a number that’s so old-school music theatre it could fit in a Cole Porter musical if it wasn’t for the darkly divertive lyrics.
The cast universally deliver as much, enthusiasm and gusto as the script demands, and more, putting everything into their performances. A.J. Holmes is indisputably brilliant as Elder Cunningham, with precision comic timing, wonderful dorkiness and vocal chops to boot. What’s most impressive is that Holmes doesn’t fall into the potential trap of imitating role originator Josh Gad, but rather makes the character, and his dialogue, his own.
Ryan Bondy is a wonderfully earnest Elder Price, with just the right amount of handsome arrogance and pious sensitivity. Price is a difficult lead role to pull off with its ‘straight-man’ positioning next to an outrageous sidekick, but Bondy lands the attitude of his character very well. Vocally, the role is also tough, and while Bondy hits all the notes, it’s often at the cost of a pleasant tone.
When the two Elders first come to Uganda, village leader Mafala Hatimbi (Bert LaBonte in a gently warm performance) introduces them to his daughter Nabulungi (Zahra Newman) and threatens them not to touch her. However, of course romance ensues, offering Newman the opportunity of some wonderful (double entendre ridden) ballads that she absolutely knocks out of the park. Newman is a revelation in the role, with the most secure of vocal performances she easily meets Broadway standard.
Technical aspects of the show are all first class. It’s apparent that the original production may have been designed with caution in mind, as to how successful the show might be, so set designs are at times quite simple. Nevertheless, everything works perfectly for the story and costumes, lighting and sound all support the overall narrative well.
What makes this show such a work of genius by its writers lies in the way it also uses this same lampooning material to educate, move and bring about an optimistic message about the potentially positive power of religion. Yes, this story has the ability to offend some, it basically points out that the basis of the Mormon religion is blind faith put into a book of pure fiction. But, when you understand it is aimed at freethinking, intelligent adults, in a world where we’ve all become numb to coarse language, it’s wonderful to find a production that still has the ability to actually shock you. If you attend this show expecting a sweet, family-friendly night out, then you’re heading in the wrong direction!
But if you can handle adult humour, this production is not to be missed and is one that you don’t have to be any kind of music theatre fan to enjoy. Take your footy mates and your teenage brother along with your girlfriends, they’ll all find this equally enjoyable and if you’re not in fits of laughter, well tell then ‘hasa diga’… you’ll soon know what I mean!
The Book of Mormon is now playing at The Princess Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.
Tickets are now on sale until June 25th.