3 Feb 2018, Princess Theatre
There are very few superlatives that haven't been used in praise of Broadway blockbuster TheBook of Mormon, which had already smashed Aussie box-office records almost a full year before its Down Under debut. With such bombastic hype comes sky-high expectations, and given the show's somewhat esoteric, American-centric subject matter, home-turf sceptics could be forgiven for questioning whether this show could really be that good. After a lengthy wait (tickets for this first Australian season went on sale almost two years ago) Aussie audiences finally have the chance to judge for themselves. And in this scribe's humble opinion, this eye-watering, side-splitting, face-achingly brilliant musical is thoroughly deserving of every rave review.
It should come as no surprise that a show made by South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez, features wall to wall bad taste comedy. Poop gags, wincing racial stereotypes, blasphemous religious send-ups, and even the ultimate comedy taboo, AIDS jokes; there are very few lines this show is shy about crossing. In the centre of its crosshairs is the bizarre made-in-America Mormon faith and its practice of sending fresh-faced young men to be missionaries around the world, spreading the word of the latter day saints one doorbell at a time.
Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) is a model missionary and devout believer. He takes it as gospel truth that Mormon church founder Joseph Smith really did meet American angels in 1823, that Jesus really did make a flying visit to the US after his crucifixion, that a third book of the bible written on golden plates really was buried in a field in the US, and that Mormons really will inherit their own planet (yep, you read that correctly). Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes) on the other hand is far from a perfect follower. Golden hearted but pathologically prone to making stuff up, he's never even read the titular book, and thanks to his social ineptitude, he's a billy no mates to boot. This mismatched pair, one preppy, arrogant and blinkered, the other nerdy, odd but well-intentioned, are packed off to Uganda where the poverty-stricken, maggot invested, baby-raping locals have life far too hard to be swooned by promises of Mormon salvation. They're more likely to say "fuck you" to god, then offer up prayers to the glory of the Lord.
If that synopsis sounds jaw-droppingly offensive, it's because it kind of is. And yet, there is (aptly enough) something utterly miraculous enshrined in The Book Of Mormon. For all its potentially irksome humour and obnoxious lampooning, it is brimming with hope, heart and redemption. With an ingenious sleight of hand, its mocking cliches somehow reveal a kindness and touching sincerity that is so unexpected, you'll leave the theatre wondering how something so seemingly sour could end up being so sweet.
There's also a surprisingly complex and profound subtext at work, exploring the nature of compassion, the tenacity of true friendship and the galvanising power of faith when it offers stability and enrichment. Both emotionally and psychologically, this unlikely parable about the place of religion in our modern world delivers an experience so nurturing that you can't help but be swept up by its mega-watt joy.
The sophistication doesn't stop there. Musically, this show never puts a foot wrong and while it's clear this is a production that knowingly roasts musical theatre tropes, the craft of the songwriting is top class. This extremely well-heeled Australian cast does this superb score justice, most notably Zahra Newman as Nabulungi, who rolled-out a powerhouse performance that will surely earn her a Helpmann nomination or two later this year. A.J. Holmes also offers a heavenly turn as Elder Cunningham, his over-excitable, adorable, geeky charisma totally stealing the show.
If there is one criticism of this largely solid staging, it's the sometimes shaky performance of Ryan Bondy. This is all the more problematic as the use of imported performers in major musical productions is a point of significant contention currently. Bondy, originally from Canada, is far from terrible, but the notion that non-Australian casting choices are necessary because of a dearth of home-grown talent is hard to believe in this instance, particularly when Blake Bowden, one of our most accomplished musical theatre performers, is Bondy's understudy. That said, this a small blemish on an otherwise flawless night at the theatre. The Book of Mormon is a lewd, crude and wonderfully rude masterpiece.
First published 4 Feb 2018, for The Music.