The Book of Mormon piqued my curiosity since having garnered scores of critical praise and winning numerous awards. For a musical only five years old, its ever-growing popularity is astounding.
So what’s the fuss all about?
After seeing the show (currently on at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, presented by Broadway Across Canada), I can tell you that the premise is nothing new.
The Book of Mormon uses a canned storyline of two Dudley Do-Rights with idealist views of the world, sent to bring salvation to the ignorant savages of an impoverished land but then wind up being saved themselves.
The show’s predictability however is a boon — astonishment comes from how this story is told. Unlike religion, there are no hidden meanings or absurd interpretations. The audience doesn’t have to mess with understanding the plot but can concentrate on being awed and shocked with blasphemous grandeur and vulgar tricks (and there’s no shortage of them here!).
A pair of mismatched Mormon missionaries are sent on a two-year proselytistic assignment to unclean a war-torn Uganda. Elder Arnold Cunningham, an insecure, geeky, chronic liar, is ecstatic to be paired with Elder Kevin Price, who is confident, self-righteous and top of his class.
At first, Price is both confused and disappointed that his prayers to be sent to Orlando (his fantasy Disney destination) have not been answered. His ego, revealed in his musical number You and Me (But Mostly Me), later leads him to believe he is meant to achieve greatness in Africa.
As soon as they arrive in Uganda, the pair are robbed and things only get worse from there. Price and Cunningham discover that the villagers must deal on a daily basis with AIDS, famine, baby rape and a warlord obsessed with female genital mutilation.
The local Ugandan Mormon chapter, District 9, has had no success with new baptisms. A happy ending is contrived through a series of unbelievable circumstances, warped logic and the vivid imagination of Elder Cunningham, who also has some spectacular truth-bending abilities.
While the show’s language is straightforwardly obscene, vulgar and offensive, all the serious issues – racism, rape, AIDS, mutilation – are sugar-coated within happy songs or hilarity.
This juxtaposition is what allows the show’s creators to lampoon every taboo topic and hit the mark. No subject matter is off limits and there’s no tip-toeing. Organized religion, race, sex, even musical theatre are all mocked although the Mormons do come out as pretty sweet, but uptight folks.
You have to applaud a sect that forbids coffee and puts Johnnie Cochran on par with Hitler and Jeffery Dahmer. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have even gotten into the habit of taking out ads in the programs of all running productions to promote their Book of Mormon.
Fans of Comedy Central’s South Park will immediately recognize the comedic style of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, two of the show’s creators. Schoolyard humour, profanity and the one-liner, “I learned something today” are their hallmarks.
Impressive, catchy musical numbers are thanks in part to the show’s third creator, Robert Lopez. Also known for Avenue Q and Frozen, Lopez is one of only 12 recipients who’ve won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award.
Jaw-dropping performances from a talented cast bring audiences to their feet on a nightly basis. The ensemble excels in all aspects of song and dance that thrill musical theatre-goers.
Casey Nicholaw deserves a wink for his nimble, eye-popping choreography. It’s almost hard to believe that Ontarian Ryan Bondy (Elder Price) honed his singing skills while being an understudy in the Broadway production.
His enthusiasm and chemistry with the buoyant, lovable Cody Jamison Strand (Elder Cunningham) sparks delight and tenderness onstage.
Donald Trump has already pushed our limits on being offended, but The Book is Mormon is still not for everyone. If you’re a pearl-clutcher or a do-gooder – stay away. If you suffer from kakologophobia, negrophobia or geliophobia the show will absolutely offend you.
The musical is only here through September 4 and shows are already selling out. Student rush tickets are available at the box office two hours before the show and are a bargain at $25.
All photos © Joan Marcus 2016.