Tag Archives: Trey Parker

“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.