Theatre Review: The Book of Mormon

Prince of Wales Theatre | ****

IF YOU saw any of the posters from Book Of Mormon's aggressive marketing campaign, you will know the musical went down a storm in the US. “History is made” said Rolling Stone. “The perfect Broadway musical” chirped Entertainment Weekly. The New York Times sang the lead in this reverberant chorus of approval: “The best musical of the century,” boomed the paper in its authoritative baritone.

Britain was another story. There were accusations of coarseness from some quarters. People said Mormonism was a soft target, criticising the musical for picking on one of the less mainstream religions out there. Perhaps – but don’t forget this religion came close to having one of its members installed in the White House last year.

Others took issue with the syrupy ending. Apparently the sympathy shown toward religion means Book Of Mormon doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

So what is it: too irreverent or too reverent? That this is even up for debate shows that Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez have achieved something more nuanced than a “conservative show for middle America” or a “cowardly, cynical satire”. Stone described Book of Mormon as an “atheist’s love letter to religion”. It mocks religion without being nasty: it should be commended for its warm-heartedness.

Elder Price (Gavin Creel) is setting out on his first mormon mission. A strapping narcissist with Romney-esque hair and teeth, Price is confident that he will “do something incredible that blows God’s freakin’ mind”. He looks forward to the unleashing his proselytising skills on the world. His enthusiasm is dampened when he finds out his mission partner is the short, fat and friendless Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner). It’s dampened further when they are posted to Uganda (or Ugahanda as Cunningham calls it) and find out it’s nothing like The Lion King.

No one has denied the Book Of Mormon’s wit. As you might expect from the creators of South Park, barb after satirical barb hit the bullseye. Many people are put off by the showiness of musicals but the writers turn it into a smart jibe at the unnerving positivity of the zealously religious.

Book Of Mormon doesn’t just mock Mormons’ beliefs. It is also perceptive about the emotional problems encountered by fervently religious people. Instant classic “Turn It Off” is a hilarious send up of the way Mormons deal with feelings and desires that conflict with their prescribed beliefs (“when you’re feeling certain feelings that don’t feel right, Turn it off, like a light-switch, turn it off”). The song “Baptise Me” also stands out. Cunningham and Ugandan love interest Nabulungi perform it as a sexy R’n’B seduction number, suggesting with flair that religion transmutes repressed sexual urges into ceremonial practices.

Some laughs feel cheap. A Ugandan local repeatedly shouts that he has maggots in his scrotum. It’s not funny the first time; by the fifth it’s annoying. It also takes the whole of the first act for Cunningham to establish himself as more than just an amusing looking sidekick to Elder Price.

Small problems stick out because the rest of the writing is so good. The Americans were right, Book Of Mormon is a revelation.