★★★★★ Hallelujah! Trey Parker and Matt Stone might just be the saviours of the modern musical
Like an eager Mormon missionary, ‘The Book of Mormon’ bounds into London full of hope and optimism, clutching nine Tony awards to its chest and praying that we will believe in it too. And in an age when most West End musicals seem to start life as a film or the back catalogue of a band, it couldn’t be more welcome. Modern musical theatre desperately needs a shot in the arm - and the good news is that, with ‘The Book of Mormon’, it’s well and truly got one. Albeit of the non-caffeinated variety.
Written by South Park’s Trey Parker (who co-directs with 'Spamalot' choreographer Casey Nicholaw) and Matt Stone, and ‘Avenue Q’ creator Robert Lopez, the show tells the story of two young Mormons whose all-important first mission sees them sent to deepest, darkest Uganda. The result is a glorious, funny night at the theatre that will leave you grinning like… well, a Mormon.
Yes, there are swear words. Lots of them. But the shock comes more from seeing Parker and Stone’s cartoonish sensibility come to life in living, breathing, singing and dancing people. Jokes and songs about rape, Ugandan warlords and female circumcision – which might make you laugh in ‘South Park’ – make you both laugh and catch your breath when uttered (or sung) by real people right in front of your very eyes. And while all of this might sound offensive – you may well find yourself with your jaw on the floor as the African chorus sing “f*** you in the eye” – the show doesn’t aim to insult either Africans or Mormons. The reality of life in a poor African country is spelled out all-too-clearly, and the show makes funny, clever digs at the Western, romanticised view of the continent. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meanwhile, most certainly gets lampooned - but as Parker and Stone have already shown in both the ‘South Park’ episode ‘All About Mormons’ and their 1997 film ‘Orgazmo’, they clearly find Mormons so gosh darn nice that it’s actually quite hard to be too mean to them. Religion isn't wrong, they seem to be saying - just inherently rather silly.
Besides, nothing screams ‘inner conflict’ like a celibate, repressed Mormon (as demonstrated beautifully in the song ‘Turn It Off’), which means that it’s ripe for both comedy and great characters. Our two leads – Elder Price and Elder Cunningham – battle not others but themselves: Price tries desperately to be a nice, considerate Mormon when in fact he has a sense of entitlement and selfishly wants an easy life. Cunningham, meanwhile, commits the great sin of lying in order to make the Book of Mormon (which he confesses he’s never read) appealing to the Ugandan villagers, and thus win their approval and admiration. Just as in ‘South Park’ – where, no matter how ridiculous the situations they get into, characters remain truthful and strangely believable – Parker and Stone put these semi-odd characters in a very odd (to them) world, and yet have them behave beautifully consistently, even down to them exclaiming “Bull poop!” because they would never, ever swear.
Elders Price and Cunningham are played by Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner respectively – both stars from the US tour and, in Gertner’s case, the Broadway production – and they’re both fantastic. Creel (who bears more than a slight resemblance to a young Mitt Romney, appropriately enough) is that rare thing, a funny straight man – while Gertner is an utter delight as his rotund sidekick and would-be best friend, exuding a childish innocence and enthusiasm reminiscent of South Park’s Butters. The American leads are supported by a terrific British company, too – most notably the funny, pure-voiced Alexia Khadime, who plays Ugandan village girl Nabulungi (whose name gets macerated as the show goes on - running jokes being another of Parker and Stone’s strengths); and Stephen Ashfield, who's a stand-out as both the elder leading the Ugandan mission and the Angel Moroni himself.
Given Avenue Q’s filthy-but-funny score, Robert Lopez’s collaboration with Trey Parker and Matt Stone makes perfect sense - and while Parker is no shirker when it comes to writing witty, catchy songs, Lopez lends the show real musical theatre chops. The songs in ‘The Book of Mormon’ are usually joyous, always packed with gags – and some have lovely little pops at other musical classics: ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ lampoons The Lion King’s ‘Hakuna Matata’ (“Does it mean ‘No worries for the rest of our days?’/Kind of”); while The Sound Of Music’s ‘I Have Confidence’ is pastiched in ‘I Believe’ (“A warlord who shoots people in the face/What's so scary about that?”). A number about hell, meanwhile, includes giant coffee cups. Well, it is “spooky Mormon hell”, after all.
In short, London audiences will be delighted to know that the all-singing, all-dancing, all-praying ‘Book of Mormon’ lives up to the hype. Original and irreverent, energetic and silly, it’s as fun and lightweight as a comedy musical should be – but thought-provoking, too: about religion, about belief, about how the privileged West views Africa. Parker, Stone and Lopez deliver gasps, laughs and vibrant new songs in the way that only great writers can. The result isn’t just great: it’s Mormonumental.