Theatre Review: The Book of Mormon

Date Posted: 05/04/2013

Rob Yandell went to the Prince of Wales Theatre knowing new West End musical The Book of Mormon could well be like Marmite. But did he love it or hate it?

The one subject I try my very best to avoid discussing with people is religion; it is a fascinating but hazardous topic. So to get this musical concept to the major stages of London and New York is an achievement in itself; a brave move that could have spelt disaster. The fact The Book of Mormon has collected nine Tony Awards after wowing audiences on Broadway appears to have vindicated the idea.

It was hard not to be interested in a musical about the Book of Mormon, particularly when its creators attribute their fame to the cult adult cartoon, South Park. It seemed an intriguing creative cocktail.

Picking apart the Church of the Latter Day Saints started by Joseph Smith in upstate New York during the 1820s (“a Mormon just believes”) the show’s tremendous energy is evident from the very start. The opening routine at the Missionary Training Centre sets the cheeky, camp tone with young Mormons dancing eagerly in crisp white shirts, black ties; with lots of doorbell ringing for good measure.

The lead characters of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are sent to Uganda despite Price’s dream of “spreading the word” in Orlando. Gavin Creel plays Price with boundless energy and eagerness despite his disenchantment with both his new partner and mission destination. Comedy consistently throws up odd pairings for that very reason and the character of young, geeky Elder Cunningham benefits greatly from the brilliant comic timing and delivery of Jared Gertner. He may have been the stand-in for the original Broadway production but he rightly plays no second fiddle in London.

Gertner is the star of the show and his chemistry with Price is only matched by his on-stage relationship with Nabulingi, played sweetly by Alexia Khadime, who has an array of major theatre credits to her name, including the lead in Wicked. In fact, the supporting cast is a strong one. Stephen Ashfield (Jersey Boys) is excellent as camp Elder McKinley, and you can always rely on the talented Giles Terera who plays Mafala Hatimbi.

It is fairly obvious given the show’s title, and South Park’s notorious humour, that The Book of Mormon could and surely would offend a great many people. But despite stepping over the line on more occasions than I care to remember, I didn’t notice a mass in-take of breath – just lots and lots of laughter. I have never seen so much tongue-in-cheek in a musical script; the humour may be vulgar at times but faith is also examined in an intelligent, thought-provoking way if you pay attention. The way in which belief can be both positive and negative is cleverly dealt with.

The songs are upbeat, punchy and very funny. I confess, however, to forgetting their melodies already, although I did find myself humming a selection during the interval. The musical is well performed, with fine songs but it was the humour and cast performances that resonated with me.

If you have ever watched Avenue Q and thought the humour was funny, although somewhat wrong, The Book of Mormon takes it up a notch. In fact, it’s probably more in keeping with Jerry Springer The Opera, which flirted briefly with the West End several years ago.

I suppose if you think there could be comedy value in Mormons spreading the message from the Church of Latter Day Saints in a remote part of Africa then you could be in for a very enjoyable few hours. Picture a song about a Spooky Mormon Hell Dream with devils overlapped by dancing cups of Starbucks and you might get the picture - sort of. Jokes about AIDS and use of the ‘c-word’ were not aspects of the show I would particularly applaud.

I think, like the majority of the audience, I went to the show with my eyes open and so the shockingly bad language and poor taste in jokes didn’t stop me enjoying it. The overall performance is very slick, fast paced and something that made me laugh out-loud throughout.

At least it’s original; this is no jukebox musical and reaffirms the view that it was probably best that Mitt Romney didn’t win the race for the White House.

The Book of Mormon is booking now at The Prince of Wales Theatre until March 2014 with group availability from August. Performance times are Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm, with a 2.30pm matinee on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Group discounts are available for parties of ten or more people.

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