Theatre review: The Book of Mormon
I have noted before that one of the most delicious sounds in theatre is total silence among the audience. But this profanity-rich, joyfully-satirical work — led by an incandescent Ryan Bondy and, following the musical with every company so far, the talented A.J. Holmes — rocks viewers through the entire running time into waves of raucous laughter.
The Australian Premiere of The Book of Mormon is a flashy and bright-eyed, fleet-footed charmer, glossily-attired and uninhibitedly open. There is not a hint of nuance nor restraint at any time at all to savour and parse.
It is a sensibility, however, that fits the portrait of neophyte Mormon evangelists coming to age in Uganda, where the eager graduates hope to convert poverty-stricken villagers, by way of being shining saviours of their unfound souls.
Despite the missionary centre’s decision to pair him with the bumbling, goofy dork Elder Cunningham (Holmes) and the tragedy of having been despatched to Africa rather than the land of his dreams, DisneyWorld Orlando, morally vain Elder Price (Bondy) is certain of his own gift to do God’s work and bring the Ugandans to eternal salvation. Only, the boys will soon learn the town in their charge is not only destitute, on the brink of famine, afflicted with disease, it is terrorised by a gun-toting warlord, currently on a campaign of mutilating female genitals.
After witnessing with horror the shooting of a civilian, Elder Price, in a crisis of faith, decides he shall pack his bags and leave the mission, after all. And Elder Cunningham, who has always been satisfied as his partner’s shadow, finds himself suddenly responsible for preaching the Book, of which he has never read, a story he now has to make up.
The creation by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in collaboration with composer and lyricist Robert Lopez, aims to make a loud, emphatic statement about the idiosyncracies of the religion and, perhaps by extension, America’s idealistic superhero complex.
While not exploring what are painfully ripe personal accounts of the two main characters, embodied with verve by the brilliant casts (not to mention that of the repressed homosexual Elder McKinley, played by Rowan Witt) feels like missed opportunities in a show seemingly preoccupied with expressing every theological and behavioural farce perceived in Mormonism, it counts, for me at least, as another tool in the strategy of iconoclasm.
The set by Scott Pask is an impressive abstraction that captures the many layers of story-telling, transporting us without seam to bucolic Uganda from the sanitised Salt Lake City in Utah. It is a dynamic world — an expansive colour scheme achieved magnificently through Brian Macdevitt’s lighting and Ann Roth’s costumes — populated by bursting spirits engaged in a choreography of boundless energy that tap-dance around the music like a divine couple.
There are songs of (twisted) inspiration, as one would expect, of blasphemy, of course, and, yes, of the heart. Love interest Nabulungi, gorgeously portrayed by our own Zahra Newman, the enchanting daughter of the village chief, turns out to be the catalyst to her people’s baptism. Best remembered for her emotional Sal Tlay Ka Siti, in which she sings of a place halfway across the globe her late mother told her about, she radiates in a supple performance, echoed by her sweet, wide-ranging voice.
Towards the production’s end, the President of the Church, on a visit to the continent, is confronted by the Africans’ dramatisation of their warped interpretation of the doctrine, in much the same way the Mormons in our midst have to, I’d imagine, contend with this irreverent Tony-awards-winning piece that has been a box-office sellout.
Although I know many Mormons must share my (other-times) preference for audience-etiquette, I am also quite confident the makers of this musical will continue to be rewarded at every staging with the very torrents they want.