By Lisa Lanzi
Pair the writers of South Park, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, with songwriter Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and Frozen), add a talented, energetic cast and there you have the world-conquering behemoth that is The Book of Mormon hurtling onto the stage in Adelaide this week. This musical has grossed more than $500 million in ticket sales worldwide since opening in 2011 giving it a position as one of the most successful musicals ever, alongside The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.
I am all for wicked, intelligent satire and mocking organised religious extremism, or indeed any organisation that supports colonialist behaviour. I am a fan of musicals when done well and for the most part The Book of Mormon is ‘done well’. However I was totally underwhelmed by this world-wide hit for a number of reasons and felt out of place sitting amongst the guffawing crowd. If you enjoy South Park (I don’t) then you know exactly what to expect: blasphemy and profanity by the truckload. Profanity doesn’t offend me unless it is directed in a vicious and demeaning way toward a person or group. Blasphemy is also fine, in the right company and if it doesn’t impinge on or demean the personal belief systems of essentially good individuals.
I didn’t find a great deal to laugh at during The Book of Mormon. We are all aware that in some areas of the world there is a belief about curing yourself of HIV/AIDS by having intercourse with a virgin. The offensive alternative involving infants mentioned several times in this show “because we’ve run out of virgins” is simply un-funny. Also questionable in 2019 (eight years on from the premiere of this show) is the negative depiction or ridicule of impoverished and decimated minority groups. The show also contains many references to female genital mutilation which of course is abhorrent and needs to be spoken of - but do we need it in a Broadway show? Yes, it’s a musical not a documentary and I can suspend disbelief to a certain extent but I find this style of high farce irrelevant today.
For the most part the choreography by Casey Nicholaw is impressive. There are attempts to portray the grounded nature of African movement styles as well as spectacular Broadway-worthy moments but it isn’t hugely memorable. Nicholaw (Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone) was brought on board as co-director by the creators to hone the show, Trey Parker stating of Nicholaw “He's purely an entertainer …. what was great is he thinks so much for stage. To him it was all about the energy…” And there is energy a-plenty from a great cast.
The ensemble is generally excellent and bring the songs to life even if some are not that memorable. Blake Bowden as Elder Price has a stunning presence and vocals to match. As Elder Cunningham Nyk Bielak brought the requisite comic bumbling and underdog nuances to the compulsively lie-telling character although I caught echoes of Seinfeld’s Newman at times in his portrayal. Victorian College of the Arts graduate Tigit Strode brought the character of Nabulungi to life and performed a couple of standout solos with her perfect musical theatre voice. Joel Granger was excellent as Elder McKinley and shone in one of the best songs Turn It Off letting us in on the fabulous usefulness of denial: just turn it off like a light switch. The number devolved into a camp tap-dance with jazz hands, spangled pink vests and fun visual puns as the lighting snapped to blackout and back again a few times. The other scene worth mentioning is the colourful ‘spooky Mormon hell dream’ where a motley cast of characters from Elder Cunningham’s vivid lies make guest appearances to haunt Elder Price including Uhura from Star Trek, Hitler, giant Starbucks cups (caffeine is banned for Mormons) and Darth Vader.
There is much to applaud in The Book of Mormon such as sly references to the church belatedly admitting in 1978 that ‘God had changed his mind’ about black people being acceptable in temple ceremonies. (The authoritarian Mormon church still does not have equal status for women, black races and certainly not gays. It provided the majority of the funding for California’s Prop 8 against same-sex marriage.) A confronted Elder Price babbles that ‘Africa is nothing like The Lion King, I think that movie took a lot of artistic license’ even though the Uganda represented on stage is a homogenized version. There is also a little healthy parodying of celebrities like Bono with the Mormon lads singing We Are Africa.
I admit my views are not among the majority and I know many people who have adored The Book of Mormon both here and overseas, but ultimately, I'm left with the decision that it isn’t for everyone...and don’t take minors!
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.