It’s rare that a musical opens in Australia with expectations as high as The Book of Mormon. It’s one of Broadway’s hottest tickets, completely sold out since it opened six years ago, thrilling critics and audiences alike, and developing a massive following. It’s a pleasure to be able to say that the Australian production lives up to those mighty expectations.
The performances are all first-class, the choreography and direction is relentless in the best possible way, while the book and lyrics are packed full of side-splitting gags that would be absolutely cringe-worthy if they weren’t so damn funny.
For the uninitiated, The Book of Mormon follows Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), two young American missionaries deployed to Uganda. Elder Price is a shining example of clean-cut, polite, devoted Mormonism while Elder Cunningham is scrappy, clumsy, and a bit of a loner just looking for a friend. It’s a classic odd couple situation.
When they arrive in Uganda it becomes immediately clear that their mission will be more difficult than they’d expected — the village they’re stationed in is overseen by a terrifying warlord, whose name I dare not repeat, and almost everyone has AIDS. They have their own philosophy to get them through, but rather than Hakuna Matata, it’s Hasa Diga Eebowai which … certainly doesn’t mean “no worries for the rest of your days”.
Perhaps Elder Price’s brand of Mormonism isn’t what these people need right now?
Written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, alongside composer/lyricist Robert Lopez, it’s just as blasphemous and crude as you’ve been led to believe, but also far gentler and kinder than you could reasonably think. And although it’s very robust and irreverent satire, it never attacks its targets too viciously.
Sure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is mocked pretty mercilessly, but the writers have plenty of compassion for the young Mormon missionaries whose efforts to do something “good” come into conflict with the strictures and absurdities of organised religion.
And sure, using the suffering of millions of people in Africa, due to disease, famine and extreme poverty, as part of a bright and colourful Broadway comedy might seem more than a little inappropriate.
But that’s also the genius of The Book of Mormon — the way it juxtaposes the almost painfully optimistic world of musical theatre with the world as experienced by some of the world’s least lucky people. It smartly makes no attempt to represent Uganda accurately in any way, but takes aim at America’s national saviour complex and the notion that these plucky young men from middle America are carrying around all the answers in their pocket in a small book.
As Elder Price, Canadian actor Ryan Bondy is perfectly clean cut, with a crystal clear singing voice, and full of extraordinary energy. He’s superb, although it’s still not entirely clear why the producers felt it necessary to import an international performer for this role, given that there are ensemble members in this very production who could likely do the job just as well.
A.J. Holmes is absolutely hysterical and entirely endearing as the inventive and eccentric Elder Cunningham, while the wonderful Rowan Witt, as Elder McKinley, gets the first show-stopping number of the night in Turn It Off, encouraging all the Mormon boys to simply switch off any feelings that might be damaging or not in keeping with the principles of their church.
It’s in these big musical numbers that director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s sharp and larger-than-life style really shines through — he’s a classic Broadway showman working with material that takes its structure from classic Broadway, if not its sense of humour. Nicholaw and the writers’ knowledge of musicals also means the show is stuffed full of musical references, from The Lion King, to The Sound of Music and a riotous and rude take on the Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet from The King and I.
Zahra Newman delivers the vocal highlights of the night as the poor village girl Nabulungi, bringing an unlikely optimism to the role, while Bert LaBonte is a strong comedic presence as her father Mafala.
It’s difficult to find anything much to fault in this heavenly production — the ensemble of Mormon boys nail everything right from the opening number Hello, the ensemble of Africans are just as perfect, Kellie Dickerson’s musical direction is as tight and measured as it needs to be for this Broadway/Disney pastiche, and Scott Pask’s gorgeous, fast-transforming set looks like it was made for the Princess Theatre.
By the end of all this, it becomes clear that if Parker, Stone and Lopez had a target, it’s probably the show’s audience — the middle class westerners who come to the theatre to open their hearts and minds, but whose feelings never translate into meaningful actions.
But, even then, Parker and Stone are kind enough to give us that smack down in what’s got to be one of the funniest musicals ever written. Don’t miss it.
Image by Jeff Busby