Oh, I believe!
The expectations of the Australian production of The Book of Mormon were higher than a stoner watching South Park – the Broadway run hasn’t had an empty seat since it opened, and won Tonys, in 2011. These expectations have been reached – and surpassed.
Seeing it once isn’t enough.
Elders Price and Cunningham are 19 and paired off for their two-year Mission, following the thousands of Elders who have set the stereotype of Mormons all over the world. Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) is the perfect Latter Day Saint son. He knows he’s one of Heavenly Father’s favourites and prays to be sent to Orlando, Florida, for theme parks and putt-putt golfing. Elder Cunningham (AJ Holmes) gets everything wrong, is mostly excited to finally have a friend, and has to be told that Uganda, their destination, is in Africa. When they arrive in a village that’s been devastated by poverty and the threat of a local warlord adds to the misery of most of them having AIDS, there’s hope for baptisms – but the villagers have strong opinions about the mercy and goodness of God.
I don’t think I have ever laughed so much.
It’s easy to praise Bondy and Holmes (they have played the roles in international productions and will be replaced by their Australian understudies) who win the undying love of the audience from their first ding dongs. But everyone on stage is as utterly brilliant. Zahra Newman (Nabulungi), Bert LaBonte (Mafala Hatimbi) and Rowan Witt (Elder McKinley) are unforgettable and have each brought an extra bit of themselves to make the roles their own; the background characters are as developed as the protagonists; and the on-stage energy could run a city power grid
Written by Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and the wonderful musical episode of Scrubs), and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park), and co-directed by Parker and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (a pile of Broadway shows), the satire of the Mormons and their faith is merciless. It’s created by following the first rule of comedy: tell the truth. Today, about 15 million people believe that truth about the church founded in America in the 1830s, but a lot of truths seem a bit nutso when they’re described.
The Ugandans are equally satirised, but their truth is very different and always seen through the point of view of the Mormons. They aren’t real Ugandans, but an exaggerated version of the “nice” and “innocent” (or warlordy) Africans expected on music theatre stages. Their layer of truth is the poverty and diseases that America could cure today; the cost of an A-reserve ticket could feed a starving child for a long time.
As the super-white American Mormons and the Africans are brought together with a common hope and goal, they are always the heroes of their personal, and the bigger, story. Everyone – even General I-can’t-spoil-the-joke-for-those-who-don’t-know – is loved and always laughed with, far more than at.
Which leaves the laughter thrown back at the audience. As our expectations of Mormons, Africans and every thing about music theatre are confronted and shattered, the only ones left to laugh at are our selves.
This is the genius of the satire. It wouldn’t be this successful if it were as simple as laughing at Mormons, Africans or religion. Maybe it’s saying that there’s something positive about being nice to everyone, or that a bit of blind faith, pure hope and unconditional friendship could help us all…
This confrontation and shattering of expectations is carried though every element. Glorious, flat, shining Salt Lake City falls away as a rotting dead donkey is dragged through the village; the Mormon boys dance like showgirls; and music theatre nerds can spot the references-cum-homages to shows including Les Miserables, The Sound of Music, The King and I, Hamilton and, of course, The Lion King.
Or just enjoy the joyous obscenity and freaking language, the tighter-than-tight jokes, the foot-perfect chorey, magnificent singing, and insanely brilliant design (Scott Pask, set; Ann Roth, costume; Brian MacDevitt, lighting) that’s as complex and joke-filled as the script.
They’ve done something incredible.