Why The Book of Mormon is much more than a book

Princess Theatre, Melbourne - The Book of Mormon - photo by Jeff BusbyHello! The multi-award winning and outrageously hilarious satirical theatre phenomena The Book of Mormon is now playing in Melbourne.

Knowing that this show is ‘from the makers of South Park and Avenue Q’ will invoke many ideas of what to expect from The Book of Mormon. Yes, expect the humour to be crass and the content very adult, and yes, expect to see all facets of society ridiculed without prejudice.

Even other musicals are not safe, with playful digs at productions such as The Lion King, Annie, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The King and I. Expect some boundaries to be pushed and exceeded. And yes, this musical is a religious parody with a focus squarely upon the namesake Mormon faith.

It is also all about metaphors. The Book of Mormon is an exceedingly clever musical. Through humour and song, it depicts the irony of what we have called Western Civilisation that tends to focus more upon our collective ignorance and blind faith, than seeing what needs to be done. And perhaps an imaginative Mormon who makes things up is the answer.

The story is centred around two Mormon missionaries, one overtly ambitious and egotistical and the other socially awkward, who have begun their two-year pilgrimage to a Ugandan village, with residents more concerned about AIDS, clean water, and the threat of mass female circumcision from a rampaging Warlord than finding God.

Like The Lion King! Sound over the top? Although sensationalised, the reality hasn’t been too far away. Uganda has had a notorious reputation concerning human rights, and is only recently starting to gain an upper hand against its ongoing HIV epidemic thanks to the availability of antiretrovirals and increased sexual health campaigning.

Tribal warlords are still a real threat to the country’s stability, and it is fair to say that there is a harsh reality that the Western world, including the US (and Australia for that matter), are either not aware of the Ugandan climate or simply do not care.

Turn it off, like a light switch! The Mormon faith have been a continual target for co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, Orgazmo) who like to present the members of this faith as exceedingly clean cut and clean living, to the point of repressing emotions, sexual identity and individual thought, and relying upon blind faith.

In The Book of Mormon, although represented as an ultra-camp group of naïve do-gooders guided by innocence with no concept of the outside world, they are the protagonists of the story. The Church itself, although opposed to the profanity and vulgar content, readily advertises their faith alongside the musical season with a statement of “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

And somehow, in a truly brilliant way, Parker and Stone alongside Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) managed to combine these themes together into an extremely hilarious romp where the laughter is more directed at ourselves than their perceived targets.

A.J. Holmes (the socially awkward Elder Cunningham) and Ryan Bondy (the ambitious Elder Price) excel as the two Mormon missionaries, with Holmes in particular tying the whole performance together with a combination of humour and impressive vocal range with an obvious South Park inspired spin. Many a time, they both were outshone by Australian talent, Zahra Newman, who plays the integral role of the village local and guide Nabulungi.

The music was only possible with the genius co-creator Robert Lopez who was also responsible for Disney Frozen’s hit number Let it go. Combined with the choreography crafted by Casey Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon was not only hilarious, it was also a musical and visual treat. Although the costumes were designed to fit and not overwhelm (Ann Roth), a certain (and rather fabulous) costume change sent the audience into rapturous laughter and applause.

The set (Scott Pask) and lighting (Brian MacDevitt) were also subdued, depicting a rather dark reality of the Ugandan village. This contrast aided in delivering the dark humour to remind the viewer that this musical is in essence based upon truths, and we are really laughing at the darkest aspects of human existence: death, disease, famine and hate. But don’t let that you stop you from having a good time.

Even at the risk of offending and perhaps being also outright blasphemous, The Book of Mormon is a must-see for anyone who relishes musical theatre. It plays in dangerous waters, and is not afraid of making statements that you cannot possibly get away with if it weren’t so drenched in humour. And having the creators of South Park and Avenue Q doing it certainly helps.

Incidentally there are now nearly 15 thousand members of the Mormon Church in Uganda. Elder Cunningham clearly did something right. Tomorrow looks like it truly will be a Latter Day!

The Book of Mormon
Princess Theatre, Spring Street, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 4 February 2017 – 7.00pm
Season continues to 25 June 2017
Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au

For more information, visit: www.bookofmormonmusical.com.au for details.

Image: Ryan Bondy (centre) as Elder Price and A.J. Holmes (far right) as Elder Cunningham and Company in the Australian production of The Book of Mormon – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Jimmy Twin