Arriving on the crest of a wave of rave reviews, Broadway box-office records, and multiple awards, you could say expectations for The Book of Mormon’s almighty arrival in London’s West End were pretty darn high. But The Book of Mormon’s better than that. It’s not a case of ‘believing the hype’, rather it is a far more rounded and satisfying show than empty hyperbole suggests. All this hollow clamour saying it’s something life-changing, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, or epoch-defining ultimately does it a great disservice. Simply put, The Book of Mormon is a very funny, very entertaining, very smart, very good musical indeed.
It’s a fairly straightforward tale of two mismatched Mormon missionaries, model devotee Elder Price (Gavin Creel) and naïve dork Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner), dispatched to northern Uganda to convert the locals, only to encounter indifference, hostility, poverty, disease and a crazed General. There’s love, there’s hate, beliefs are challenged, friendships are forged, undone and reconciled – everything you might want from a big flashy stage show, plus a potted history of Mormonism to boot.
In fact, anyone expecting The Book of Mormon to break with musical convention clearly aren’t familiar with the previous work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (joining forces with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez). Sure, it subverts the format, and takes pop shots at neighbouring shows (notably The Lion King), but it celebrates it too, offering the scene-setting song, the down-on-their-luck ballad, the hopeful ‘somewhere else far from here’-number et al. And, just as with South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police, the songs are excellent in their own right, regardless of the foul language contained within, properly propelling the story and developing character. And from a technical standpoint, the staging, sets, design, costumes and scene changes too are often cleverly self-aware but top-notch too. It also succeeds in solving that old problem cynics have with musicals (and I’d often consider myself one of them) – people breaking into song for no good reason. The Book of Mormon pokes and plays with third-world African stereotypes, where everyone chants and cheers and raises their hands skyward with the slightest provocation, but there is also something oddly appropriate about all singing all dancing Mormons, translating their cheery optimism and grinning enthusiasm convincingly into showtunes and high-kicks.
Similarly, those who consider The Book of Mormon as a mocking attack on the church and its followers have also somewhat missed the point. Parker and Stone have past form here, even a mild obsession – Orgazmo starred Parker as a Mormon who becomes involved in the porn industry, one South Park episode was dedicated to the tale of Joseph Smith, while another revealed it was the correct religion to get you into Heaven. But in all instances, the Mormons all come off as thoroughly decent people, strange, almost anachronistic, outsiders sure, but fairly normal (even the show programme features adverts from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). This translates well to The Book of Mormon, imbuing the show with a sweetness and charm that makes it even more enjoyable. Theirs is not an anti-religion anti-establishment liberal agenda, nor are they equal opportunities offenders, rather their targets are often off-centre. They are more likely to attack hypocrisy or the institutions that allow bad people to do bad things, than the bad people or the bad things themselves. The overall message isn’t that faith is necessarily a bad thing, but no one belief is less ridiculous than any other.
In terms of the West End production, London has lucked out having Creel and Gertner, veterans of the U.S. tour and original Broadway cast respectively, as the leads. Both know the show inside-out, and are an absolute joy to watch, entirely inhabiting their characters, and fully investing them into each and every song. Comparatively, the London cast are naturally less sure of themselves, but time will change that, and they warm up and come into their own as the show goes on (though Stephen Ashfield as repressed district head Mormon Elder McKinley is a bona fide scene-stealer). Alexia Khadime as love interest Nabulungi seems uncertain at first, but by the time her big song comes along, she completely sells it. If we are being picky, a few running gags don’t quit justify the repetition, and some songs just aren’t quite as good as the others, but only by the smallest of margins. And dare I say it, even I found some of the material a wee bit uncomfortable as far as comedy subject matter goes (namely, an awful lot of time dedicated to female circumcision). But none of these points come close to scuppering and souring a wonderful experience overall.
The Book of Mormon would never have been the success it has become had it been the cheap parody or vicious religious roast lesser talents would have created, but the fact that the performances, dialogue, tunes and production are all great is a big part of it too. It zips by at such a pace and has so much fun with it, I could have happily sat through another hour. But I guess the next best thing is to just go see it again, something I am very tempted to do.