The Book Of Mormon, March 2013

Review: The Book Of Mormon at The Prince Of Wales Theatre

by Glenn Rice

As the saying goes, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a frustrated idealist underneath. Exactly how frustrated Trey Parker and Matt Stone - and their collaborator, Avenue Q's Robert Lopez - are about the universal rapture their nine-times Tony Award-winning musical The Book Of Mormon has been met with is open to question. 

But sure enough, just millimetres beneath the surface smirk of this hilarious, outrageous, electrifyingly energetic show is a clear-eyed, humane message: it doesn’t matter what religious mythology your faith is based on - if it points you in the direction of empathy and compassion, it’s cool.

Which won’t be a surprise if you’re a fan of Parker and Stone’s satirical animated TV series South Park, whose moral compass unerringly points in the direction of righteousness no matter how jaw-droppingly near-the-knuckle or anally-fixated the stories get.

Aside from their previous film musical experience (warm-up effort Cannibal The Musical and the brilliant South Park movie) the years the duo have spent packing fully-realised stories into South Park’s 22 minutes surely account for The Book Of Mormon’s flawless pacing.

It pauses only briefly for moments of poignancy and drama on its gleeful charge through whip-smart dialogue scenes and uniformly killer musical numbers. It's totally fat-free and tighter than a snare-drum head.

The straight-up plot follows young chalk-and-cheese Mormon missionaries Elder Kevin Price (Gavin Creel, left) and Elder Arnold Cunningham (Jared Gertner, below) as they're thrown together and dispatched from Mormon HQ in Salt Lake City to spread the word of the Latter Day Saints in a poverty-stricken Ugandan village. 

Price is an idealistic, self-serving egotist - America’s paternalistic foreign policy made flesh. Svelte and athletic, Creel makes this perma-grinning putz sympathetic and wildly funny, as well as singing and dancing up an absolute storm, as do the rest of the cast without exception.

Gertner’s Elder Cunningham is a short, podgy, socially unskilled dweeb who can’t differentiate between Mormon scripture and the plot of Star Wars. He’s the loveable heart of the show, engaging in a sweet, silly, chaste romance with villager Nabulungi (Alexia Khadime) and converting her fellow villagers with a mind-bogglingly convoluted version of Mormon scripture that he makes up on the spot.

When local warlord – the brilliantly monikered General Butt-F***ing Naked (Chris Jarman) threatens to kill the villagers and mutilate their women, it falls to Price, Cunningham and their similarly dysfunctional fellow missionaries to save the day.

From opening number Hello, which uses tuned doorbells instead of regular orchestration, through Turn It Off – undoubtedly the best song about repressed homosexuality ever written and beneficiary of a truly fabulous coup de théâtre – to my own personal favourite Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, the musical numbers throughout are superbly arranged, painfully funny, joyously choregraphed and utterly memorable, each one a brilliant, knowing pastiche of musical theatre styles.

If you find South Park crass and offensive rather than seeing its crassness and offensiveness as powerful tools of satirical comedy, then The Book Of Mormon's not for you. It touches on some pretty extreme stuff, including child abuse, AIDS, and God being well, er…not very helpful really. 

That’s before you get to the dead-eyed pot-shots at consumerism and, of course, organised religion. But it's nothing we don't see every day on the news. Never once does the treatment of the material feel heavy, didactic or sneering. In fact, just the oppposite. 

Mormon doesn’t scrimp on the swearing either, which is as choice and perfectly timed as anyone who’s ever bust a gut laughing at the South Park movie might expect. Parker and Stone use an axe rather than a scalpel as their weapon of choice but it’s a sharp one. 

For all its bracing candour and originality, The Book Of Mormon is first and foremost a Broadway musical in the truest and most traditional sense – a no-expense-spared, feelgood feast of song, dance and side-splitting comedy that absolutely refuses to pander and which sent me home with my cheeks and ribs feeling like they’d been cracked open like a boiled lobster.

This time, you can believe the hype. New tickets have just been released, and booking is now open until 14 December. They're going like hot cakes, so grab one while you can.