Caragh Medlicott reviews the award-winning musical The Book of Mormon currently showing at Wales Millennium Centre after a series of pandemic-related delays.
After more than a year of postponement due to COVID, The Book of Mormon has finally arrived at Wales Millennium Centre. The iconoclast musical from Avenue Q co-writer Bobby Lopez and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone is a production adorned with nine Tony Awards, and the promise of historic sold-out productions in London and Broadway. With bums back in seats, anticipation is high and audiences hungry for the glitzy all-singing all-dancing fanfare of a return to live musicals (a spectacle much missed over the tumbleweed months of recurrent lockdowns). Thankfully, The Book of Mormon bursts onto WMC’s stage with rapturous joy – its irresistible, high-energy musical numbers and zinging comical irreverence a feast for both eyes and soul after months of shuttered theatre doors and empty hours passed on the sofa.
For the uninitiated, The Book of Mormon follows the story of two young mismatched Latter-day Saint missionaries sent to preach their ideology globally. While their religious peers are packed off to a range of touristy European locations, the strait-laced Elder Price (Robert Colvin) and bespectacled Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson) are destined for a remote Ugandan village where they will be tasked with “saving” the souls of the locals. As character pairings go, the shiny all-American boy with the loose-lipped friendless nerd is hardly revelatory, yet it’s the show’s thematic dissection of the Mormon faith, and blind American egotism more generally, which gives it its edge. And edge it certainly has. The first couple of musical numbers – the excellent counterpoint opener ‘Hello!’ and more classically rendered ‘Two by Two’ – are swiftly switched up a gear with a set change to Uganda. Thus begins The Book of Mormon’s parodying of a white caricature vision of Africa, one replete with everything from warlords to AIDS jokes (some of which have brought the musical under greater scrutiny in recent years).
For Elder Price, in particular, the harsh realities of Ugandan life call his skin-deep religious devotions into question, his lifetime dream of being sent to the gleaming theme park land of Orlando hilariously upturned. Elder Cunningham, however, is delighted to have a best-friend-by-assignment, merrily joining in with the local renouncement of worries via “hasa diga eebowai” – a spitting parody of the Lion King’s Hakuna Matata (except here, the young missionaries are informed, its translation is “fuck you God”). In musical breadth and spritzy choreography, The Book of Mormon both encapsulates and contrasts the themes of conformity and American-centricity; with everything from campy slapstick tap numbers costumed in pink sequined waist coats to ballad laments and much more jiving and pitchfork thrusting in between.
There’s no denying that a lot has changed in the ten years since its Broadway debut, yet the jokes still reach the audience, and even bring the house down (though many at WMC seem familiar enough with the show to sing along live, also). Like Hamilton, The Book of Mormon has an educational slant – it’s got its facts straight on Mormonism and isn’t afraid to play with the, well, many plainly strange facts of its founding story (here, the angel Moroni tells Joseph Smith to keep the unearthed golden scripture hidden: “Even if people ask you to show the plates, don’t… even though this might make them question if the plates are real or not. This is sort of what God is going for.”). It’s in these moments that The Book of Mormon is at its comic best, delightful and satirical without being ungenerous to the religion at its centre, blossoming in numbers like ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ and ‘I Am Africa’. The latter of which plays with a white saviour Bono-esque claim to an entire continent, eschewing input from the real Ugandan natives, with the Mormon elders pushing them out the way to gleefully declare “I am Africa”. What sometimes smarts is the blurry lines of parody and stereotyping, Uganda – both as a nation and a people – rarely receiving as much sympathy and/or attention as the religion apparently central to the whole show’s mick-taking. Then you have to wonder how it played a decade ago.
The inevitable plot direction and consequence of Elder Cunningham’s lying habit will be predictable even to those unfamiliar with the show, but – like with many good musicals – the journey getting there is no less fun for it. As returns to the stage go, The Book of Mormon is about as rambunctious as it gets. Hitting all your usual musical high notes with a stellar cast of starry-eyed triple threats and on-time popera dance numbers, its comedy is whipping and – who could expect anything less of Parker and Stone? – at times contentious. Through both grins and gritted teeth, it’s safe to say that musicals are back with a shiny, sequined bang.
The Book of Mormon is showing at Wales Millenium Centre until 30 October. Tickets are available here.