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