The Book of Mormon
Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
Anne Garefino, Important Musicals LLC, Sonia Friedman Productions, Roger Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Jean Doumanian, Roy Furman, Stephanie P McClelland, Kevin Morris, Jon B Platt, Robert G. Bartner, Norman Tulchin, Stuart Thompson.
Palace Theatre, Manchester
The Book of Mormon is a daring choice for a festive show. After all, it offers plenty of opportunity for people to take offence. It could be argued the musical ridicules organised religion and the Ugandan village it features reenforces racial stereotypes. More significantly, a compulsive liar is named ‘Cunningham’ which is going a bit too far.
Elder Kevin Price (Robert Colvin) has such a strong belief in, almost adoration of, himself he is sure his first mission for his Church will be to Orlando, Florida. He is devasted to learn he is not only to serve in Uganda, but his partner will be Elder Arnold Cunningham (Conner Peirson), an insecure, compulsive liar who, it turns out, has never even read The Book of Mormon. The faith of the duo is tested as they are mugged upon arrival and find the villagers living in appalling conditions struggling with AIDS and the threat of female genital mutilation from a despotic general. But perhaps the hapless Elder Cunningham has accidently stumbled upon a way forward.
During the ten years since The Book of Mormon was first staged, real-life events have developed with potential to drain the humour from the jokes. We have seen the effects of a narcissistic leader in the USA and, with our own dear Prime Minister, the rise of an actual version of Elder Cunningham: an overweight, needy fantasist who is averse to work. However, the success of the show, in large part, can be attributed not to the shock value of the jokes but simply to the care taken in its development and staging.
The songs work not just as part of the show but also as parodies of the type of tunes that appear in musicals. The choreography by co-director Casey Nicholaw pays tribute to / mocks a wide range of genres from big show numbers to boy bands and Disney musicals. A constant feature is, however, depicting the members of the church as being a bit, well, creepy, behaving with a uniformity better suited to robots than humans—dressed identically with fixed manic smiles and moving with a regimented formality even when dancing.
The missionaries are portrayed well-intentioned but completely out of their depth when faced with harsh reality. On the other hand, entertainers who appropriate African culture or behave like white saviours are mocked mercilessly. The sanitised optimism of The Lion King is refuted with the villagers having a saying which is definitely not "Hakuna Matata"; and Bono gets a name-check. During one dance, the black villagers are pushed aside by grandstanding white missionaries proclaiming "I am Africa!" There is a running gag of the inability of the Mormons to correctly pronounce African names. Far from being noble savages, the Africans are the only people capable of seeing the religious parables as metaphors rather than literal instructions and Aviva Tulley’s Nabulungi is almost street-smart in perceiving the Mormons as a chance to escape poverty.
The beliefs set out in The Book of Mormon are not crudely lampooned; rather the approach taken is that the book is so eccentric, no exaggeration is required. The straight-faced reporting of the more extreme aspects ("I believe in 1978 God changed His mind about black people") makes them even funnier.
The Mormons are depicted in a too-good-to-be-true artificial manner: all smartly dressed and looking identical. Directors Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker maintain this slightly cartoonish atmosphere; Robert Colvin regularly stands centre-stage gazing into the middle distance behaving just like a Marvel comic superhero. The missionaries are presented as being so deeply in denial about their true feelings as to be borderline psychotic, particularly Jordan Lee Davies’s Elder McKinley going to extremes to deny his sexuality.
The characters ought to be beneath contempt. The theme song for Elder Price, "You and Me (But Mostly Me)", is perfect for a narcissist so self-obsessed he makes every situation about himself. Elder Cunningham is so lazy he makes no preparations for his mission and is startled to find how black people are depicted in The Book of Mormon. Yet the saving grace of the characters is their willingness to learn and reach a kind of maturity. The effect is, instead of being cynical, the overall atmosphere, despite regular profanity, is sweetly innocent.
The Book of Mormon is so good it will renew your faith, if not in religion, certainly in theatre.
Reviewer: David Cunningham