The Book of Mormon Theatre Review
International smash hit musical does not disappoint
Musical theatre ought to be bursting with unrestrained joy, setting the stage alight with enthusiasm for movement, music and performance. Either that, or it better be so miserable and hopeless that the stage and its players melt into a puddle of tears and steam. Otherwise, what would there be to sing about? What I mean is, when it comes to the prevailing emotion of a piece of musical theatre, it ought to be all or nothing. Matt Stone and Trey Parker (best known for South Park and Team America, lesser known for BASEktball, not known for Orgazmo) have gone for comedy and satire in their international smash hit The Book of Mormon, and the enthusiasm is palpable.
The Book of Mormon, which has been running here in Melbourne for so long it’s likely soon to have its own theatre, is a classic odd-couple story. Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and Elder Cunningham (Nyk Bielak), after completing their training as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christs of Latter-day Saints are all set to preach the book of Mormon in Uganda, Africa. Elder Price, star pupil, is upset because he wanted to go to Orlando, and because he got stuck with Elder Cunningham. Cunningham (played on Broadway by Josh Gad in a role that might as well have been written for Josh Gad) is enthusiastic, but he’s a screw up and has a tendency to fabricate due to low self-esteem. Seeing him off at the airport, his parents tell him to do everything Elder Price tells him to.
The pair’s arrival in Uganda instantly shows off Scott Pask’s scenic design and Ann Roth’s costuming. A Ugandan drags an animal carcass across the stage, in front of a backdrop of ragged slums. In stark contrast, the Elders step out with beaming white shirts and thin black ties, a true-to-life costuming touch that shows Roth’s subtlety and understanding of the play’s use of contrast as comedy.
We’re only the beginning of the story, and already a spate of energetic and creative songs will have burrowed their way in your eardrums. Kicking things off, there’s the vocally acrobatic ‘Hello’, which features the full cast of pasty-white men going door-knocking and waxing lyrical about the good word of Jesus Christ of the Church of Latter-day Saints. The arrival in Uganda features the locals forming a particularly embittered welcoming party and singing ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ which, to the Elders’ horror, means ‘F*** you god’. At this early point you’re likely to wonder how a couple of cartoonists with little-to-no musical theatre experience (they did produce the utterly-unknown Cannibal! The Musical in 1993) could produce songs as entrenched in the musical theatre style as these are. But then you remember explosively satirical pieces like Team America’s ‘America, F*** Yeah’ and South Park’s Kanye West-ribbing ‘Gay Fish’ and you realise: these guys have been writing top-notch musical theatre their entire careers – only now they’re doing it on a stage.
Tensions rise as Price wants to transfer out of Uganda to Orlando (spot the South Park reference in his Orlando-based hell dream) and Cunningham starts winning over the locals with his fabricated version of the book of Mormon’s teachings. Both the Canadian-born leads perform admirably, especially Bielak portraying his character’s physical awkwardness through his own deft physicality. The real standout in this Melbourne cast is Australian Zahra Newman as Nabulungi, the Ugandan girl keen on learning about the book of Mormon. Newman has this naïve, wide-eyed look in her eyes that heavily contrasts the rest of the cast’s comically cynical performances. Her song, ‘Sal Tlay Ka Siti’ (Salt Lake City) shows off her tremendous vocal chops while still delivering the humour.
There are no particularly surprising turns in the plot, though Parker and Stone have always hit familiar beats in their storytelling – they just happen to tell stories no one else does. There’s a hinted-at romantic subplot between Nabulungi and Cunningham that peters out when it could’ve provided some drama between the missionary and Nubulungi’s father (played by reliable stage actor and chameleon Bert LaBonté), but, honestly, why criticise? The show is packed with energy and its performers are clearly enjoying the material; its infectious joy spreads rapidly to its audience. I’d tell you to go see it, but I’d only be saying what everyone else already is. Instead, I’ll just tell you to go see it again.