The Book of Mormon
Book, Music & Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone
Directed: Casey Nicholaw & Try Parker
Prince of Wales Theatre, London
2nd March 2013
The Book of Mormon comes to London after a Broadway smash success, followed by a US Tour. Though Gavin Creel (Elder Price) and Jared Gertner (Elder Cunningham) as the two leads are not the Broadway originals, they are the stars of the US Tour. Watching them, it’s impossible to imagine anyone did the roles better. Alexia Khadime as Nabulungi, the female lead is SO good, that I held off buying the original Broadway Cast CD, because I’d rather wait and hope they do a London cast CD. When someone can dance, sing and act at this level, you expect her to be the next musical superstar.
The Book of Mormon is from South Park’s creators, and it has twin functions, as a hilarious comment on faith and the world today, and as a sincere homage to the American musical. Trey called it a “valentine card to the American musical.” It functions perfectly as a musical … brilliant choreography, precision dancing, memorable songs, terrific singers, first rate house band. It’s obviously a pastiche … just listen to the lyrics … but pastiches work best when they just as good as the originals, and this is. Various songs remind you of great musicals of the 50s, others have a strong touch of the big 80s and 90s Disney songs (which in any case evolve from the genre), and the hell sequence is The Osmonds. The cast is twenty-three or twenty-four strong.
It is wickedly funny. They say the creative team was worried about its reception in London. They needn’t have. On this, the first matinee, we were sitting right at the back. I’ve studied standing ovations. Even the most powerful ones (Jerusalem? Comedy of Errors at the NT?) happen like a wave with some standing immediately and then others stand. Not here. The instant it finished EVERYONE stood instantly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.
Like South Park no target is immune. Apart from the underlying credibility of the basic Mormon belief system, and the Mormon attitude to gays and blacks (changed in 1978 after a revelation), it also targets African warlords, AIDS, child rape, female circumcision. It combines being the funniest thing I’ve seen in years (possibly ever) with serious points running under everything.
Elders Price (a white toothed perfect Mormon missionary) and his curly haired plump nerdy sidekick, Cunningham, are sent as partners on a mission. Not to Orlando, as Price had dreamed, but to Uganda. There they meet the team (chorus) of missionaries led by Elder McKinley (who has gay fantasies) and the African villagers, The locals are in daily threat from warlords and AIDS is endemic.
Cunningham admits that he’s a liar. After all else fails, he tries to convert the African villagers on his own. This is the fascinating part. We have seen the stories at the basis of Mormonism acted out. We have seen Joseph Smith finding the gold plates that no one else can ever see, and being visited by the Angel Moroni and we see Jesus visiting America during his three days in the tomb to convert the two tribes. All religion has a leap of faith at his heart, and an irrational core that you either believe or don’t. The Joseph Smith story is such that Mormons certainly exercise their capacity to believe as much as any faith system. It has been noted that the first copies of The Book of Mormon cited Smith as “the author”, the later as “translator.”
Anyway, when the message fails to get through, the nerdy Cunningham begins to embroider the story, adding elements from Star Wars, Star Trek and The Lord of The Rings. This impresses the villagers and they decide to convert. The interesting thing is that Cunningham’s fibs are all moral and beneficial. He stops them raping virgins as an AIDS cure, he bans female circumcision, and adds a story about Joseph Smith and dysentery to stop them shitting in the river. This is what holy texts have done in the past. The ban on pork and shellfish in Judaism makes perfect sense in a hot country with non-existent hygiene. Islam focuses on the same dietary requirements, adds a ban on alcohol, insists on washing before prayer, and a yoga teacher pointed out to me that if you only did the Moslem prayer movement several times a day, it would be enough to keep you supple and fit. Mormonism banned alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. In banning the third, Smith was one of the first ever to preach the evils of tobacco smoke. The fact that Arnold Cunningham is making it all up (but also that it’s beneficial) is the theme, and reflects back.
That paragraph sounds as if it’s didactic. It doesn’t ever come across as didactic … just great music, great dancing, a laugh a minute. Amid all of it, Alexia Khadime as Nabulungi exacts genuine sympathy from the audience, a very hard thing to pull off. You do care what happens to her.
It says a lot for America and freedom of speech that there’s no fatwah, no Salman Rushdie in hiding. While I’d assume that the portrayal of what seem absurdities to outsiders would offend Mormons, there’s a quote from a senior Mormon who saw it saying that at least he thanked them for portraying them with affection.
I’m avoiding plot spoilers on a must-see production. This is the benchmark for a five stars out of five production.
Having two Americans in the two lead roles is essential. I’m hyper-sensitive to British actors doing American accents, and they always do far better when working with real Americans in their midst. Stephen Ashley as Elder McKinley comes straight from playing Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys so is fully practised in American accents. No issues at all for me. And all the Africans have African accents, so that’s not an issue either. In fact you can probably find more black British actors used to African accents around them.
The Prince of Wales is one of the few central theatre area ones with decent toilets and public areas. The downside is that it has many rows in the stalls with no rake at all, then only a slight rake towards the back. Having suffered serious large head intrusion near the front, we chose right at the back, but while there is a rake, it’s too slight to make much difference.