Tag Archives: Casey Nicholaw

“The Book of Mormon” at the Prince of Wales Theatre

Being both outrageous and mainstream is tricky. While there are lots of musicals that challenge an audience, few have had the success of this show from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. But after the hype, and coming up to a decade playing in London, is The Book of Mormon still risqué?

Never fear, a show about religion, with jokes about Aids, still has the potential to offend… if that is what you want. The representation of Africa, where the Mormon missionaries we follow end up, wants to be controversial. And the show is aggressively sceptical about faith. The cynicism has always struck me as contrived. And the humour is puerile, no matter how clever its creators. But embrace the tastelessness and you’ll love it.

Even if the crudity is too much for you, it’s well done – a cartoonish design from Scott Pask, perfect for tableaux explaining Mormonism, is indicative of the strong production. Yes, even the set gets laughs.

Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography are action packed – the show doesn’t settle for a second. The performances are full of energy, too. If the characters that we come to know are few (and caricatured), they are depicted well. With the two male leads, Dom Simpson’s strong voice is complemented by Tom Xander’s comedy skills. Steven Webb’s smaller role as Elder McKinley proves a crowd pleaser. And. although the role of Nabulungi is particularly unforgiving – it’s downright odd, nowadays, to see a female lead so passive – Leanne Robinson does a great job.

The performers and Nicholaw appreciate how the songs drive narrative in a traditional manner. This is one of many smart moves from Parker, Lopez and Stone, and the score has gently grown on me as a result.

Gentle is an odd word for a show that that revels in offending. The Book of Mormon takes a harsh look at faith and human nature: attempts to do good don’t work out. The pastiche soundtrack comments on this – that’s the joke, of course – but the songs also add balance and… warmth. Mimicking big musical numbers – both peppy and inspirational – gets laughs. But the tunes are still perky and moving. There’s the question of atmosphere, too, as the show has many return fans. Being in a room where people know the jokes takes some sting from a punchline, but it’s also a boon. Time for another surprising word – The Book of Mormon turns out to be a charmer.


Photo by Johan Persson

“The Book of Mormon” at the Prince of Wales Theatre

As a contrast to the fringe productions I’ve been enjoying lately, I treated myself to a West End show. Hits don’t get much bigger than this one from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, which has run in London since 2013. It’s a piece that excites people who don’t normally go to the theatre, let alone to musicals. And, generally, you don’t hear a bad word said about it… although that might change here.

Billed as the funniest musical of all time, its idea seems to be that the creators of South Park and Avenue Q insult everyone equally and so their offensive jokes are OK. OK? It’s true that in this story of Mormon missionaries in Uganda the topics of religion, Americans abroad and African corruption are all targets. And the show is funny.

For crude jokes, The Book of Mormon can’t be beat, with gags around taboo topics and the inhibitions and aspirations of its teenage heroes. There’s little effort to give the characters depth (kind of a joke as well) but the plot is effective – a simple journey of self-discovery – leading to strong roles for the leads, Price and Cunningham, that Dom Simpson and Tom Xander revel in.

The show has its smart humour, too. Focusing on something religion and theatre have in common – imagination – is a clever move. As Cunningham rewrites religion, winning converts as he tailors a new narrative, we end up with that most traditional of musical devices – a show within a show – that’s very good indeed. Choreography from Casey Nicholaw (who co-directs with Parker) is especially good (and funny) often aiding the story as well as getting laughs.

So why reservations? Humour is subjective, although I’m surprised more people aren’t uncomfortable with the material here, no matter how tongue in cheek. And it’s clear the show doesn’t quite know what to do with its female lead (although Leanne Robinson works hard in the role). But for me, it’s bite that is really lacking, making the satire predictable, cold and calculated.

Just naughty enough to provide a frisson of excitement, even if it does contain some cruel truisms, The Book of Mormon’s box office surely indicates it’s a long way from radical. There are more challenging musicals, with smaller marketing budgets, even if plenty were inspired by this one. Given its London home, you might recall Jerry Springer the Opera? I’m sure someone has written a compare and contrast. With the exception of the number ‘I Am Africa’, attacks are simplistic and the final see-it-coming-a-mile-off gag reveals a show just preaching to the choir. With no self-deprecation or challenge, and an eagerness to poke fun at easy targets, it’s possible that the last joke of the night is on the audience.


“Dreamgirls” at the Savoy Theatre

This 1981 Broadway hit, with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music from Henry Krieger, reached movie screens before the London stage, so theatregoers have had to be patient. But it has been worth the wait. The story of a Motown girl group, and their trials in show business, its cast’s superb voices mean that from the first talent contest there’s no doubt fame will arrive for The Dreamettes. As the focus becomes the trio’s personal lives, with professional betrayals and broken relationships, powerful songs guarantee strong emotion.

Liisi LaFontaine plays Deena, the shy girl chosen to lead the band into stardom. She sounds fantastic and her acting is adroit. Asmeret Ghebremichael is Lorrell, another member of the group, who holds her own providing a welcome comic number, Ain’t No Party. Lorrell’s affair with the star the girls used to sing backing vocals for – played by the multi-talented Adam J Bernard – is strong in its own right.

Joe Aaron Reid and Liisi LaFontaine
Joe Aaron Reid and Liisi LaFontaine

The bigger story is the love triangle between Deena, the band’s manager Curtis (performed with a slick edge by Joe Aaron Reid), and Effie, jilted in love and abandoned by the band. And it’s all about Effie. Taking the role of this complex character, Glee star Amber Riley has the audience on its feet more than once. Her powerful voice brings goose bumps – do take the chance to hear her – but big credit also goes to her acting.

The music tells the simple story in a satisfyingly layered manner. Even weaker numbers, examples of cynicism rather than soul through the machinations of Curtis, reflect and comment on the characters’ lives. With the development of R&B into disco (again, blame the manager) variety is built in. It’s an accomplished musical history, aided by Gregg Barnes’ costume design, with a riot of sequins guiding us through the years and illustrating how to really wear a feather boa… if you didn’t already know.

But it’s the women rather than some calculated social history who bring this dream to life. Brilliant performances, packaged by Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography affording speed and immediacy, make the success, struggle and reconciliation both uplifting and entertaining.

Booking until February 2018


Photos by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

“Aladdin” at the Prince Edward Theatre

Nobody does family entertainment like Disney. As this latest transfer from Broadway illustrates, their franchises cover all bases for a hit. Theatre is always a gamble, but it’s a safe bet that Aladdin will reap dividends, and someone has clearly put a great deal of money on it. With its many neon-coloured costumes and intricate sets (brilliant work by Gregg Barnes and Bob Crowley), this is a sumptuous night out. And that’s not to mention the magic carpet – with this budget they might have paid for a real one.

Adapted from the 1992 animation, Chad Beguelin’s book is a masterclass in moving movie to stage. It’s what people want and the show does exactly what it says on the tin lamp. Maybe it’s churlish (or naïve) but could they have been more adventurous? If I had one wish the film’s romantic theme, A Whole New World, would have been ditched despite its Oscar. It’s an uncharacteristically weak song from the impressive Alan Menken, who wrote the music here, working with Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin on lyrics.

 Jade Ewen and Dean John-Wilson
Jade Ewen and Dean John-Wilson

The additional songs are good and, as they were cut from the original film, they fit well. The first couple of numbers are best, carefully fleshing out the main characters. Dean John-Wilson cuts a dash in the lead (although if you’ve heard his magnificent voice before you might feel he is underused) and Jade Ewen is a charming Princess Jasmine. Combine the strong performances and their opening numbers and the two leads escape from being cartoon characters. Other tunes are catchy, and clever, if functional rather than magical.

With Casey Nicholaw’s ruthlessly efficient direction and choreography there’s little time to pick holes. A breakneck pace defies boredom and there’s plenty of humour as well. The role of Aladdin’s chums, embraced by Nathan Amzi, Stephen Rahman- Hughes and Rachid Sabitri, is a good case in point: their number is good and the staging so exaggerated it might be better suited to a cartoon. But the whole thing is so invigorating, with the addition of some food-based puns, it takes your breath away.

Trevor Dion Nicholas
Trevor Dion Nicholas

Aladdin’s secret weapon is, of course, the Genie. It’s the same for this show. Travelling with the production is Trevor Dion Nicholas, a real high value pro: commanding the stage, directing the fun and guiding the pieces wry edge. Gleefully telling us when his “big production number” is coming up and pointing out “we don’t have time for self discovery”, Nicholas is the proverbial dream. Such a strong theatrical performance fulfils my wish for the show. Bravo.

Booking until 11 February 2017


Photos by Deen van Meer © Disney