Words by Fin Murphy
3 out of 10
Over the years it was in the making; The Book Of Mormon simmered with attention as the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Religion, warlords and imperialism examined by two of the most irreverent voices in pop culture through the flamboyance of musicals; a promising blend of Juvenal, Brecht and Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog. In the end, the musical has been a runaway success, garneringrave reviews, sell-out performances and an astounding nine Tony Awards. Most interestingly, though, is the lack of furore; this is no Jerry Springer: The Musical, or even The Producers. Now, The Book Of Mormon has travelled to London’s plush Prince of Wales Theatre, where tickets are rarer than a whistleblower in the BBC. Surprisingly, the main problem is inoffensiveness, belying creators Parker and Stone (plus Avenue Q co-creator, Robert Lopez).
Unlike cynical children or action hero-cliché puppets, our protagonists here are Elder Kevin Price, an ideal Mormon, plus cohort, Elder Arnold Cunningham, an archetypal nerd. As characters they lack depth; their Herculean flaws are, respectively, egomania and lying, which end up being the crutches of the plot. Price, played by Gavin Creel, progresses somewhat over the course of the musical, his cosmetic sheen chipped away by his predicament. Cunningham, played by original understudy Jared Gertner is a substantially weaker character. He is continuously relied upon to chuck out a funny reference to Star Wars or simply to mispronounce a name foreign to himself. The second act is weaker as he is the focus.
On a larger scale, the foundations of the Church are poked at by 2D representations, with Jesus and others voiced similarly to South Park. Church elders come across as 1950’s dads, only without the Mad-Menian underbelly. Real sins by the Church, such as its tumultuous past with civil rights, are carted away in the forgettable songs, like a yodelling EDL. Main antagonist, General Butt-Fucking-Naked, is represented farcically in comparison to his real life equivalent, the real horrors diluted down to bibles being shoved up rectums. He is given relatively little time on stage whilst the way he is dealt with is truly ludicrous, even for a musical. Price and Cunningham’s fixer, Mafala Hatimbi, is pure Uncle Tom, whilst his impassioned daughter, Nabulungi, is undermined by her earnest belief in Cunningham’s mock-religion.
Imperialism is laughed at tepidly, as when the white Mormon missionaries sing ‘we are Africa.’ However, the temptation to assign right-wing beliefs to the work of Parker and Stone, their worldview helping spawn the South Park Conservative after all, is overwhelming. It seems that in their fascination with Mormonism, Parker and Stone have taken a shine to the happiness of its adherents and wish to spread it to others in a rather dubious way. This is reflected in their representation of the villagers. All too often the unwashed denizens are nameless and faceless, assigned to being shot in the face by General Butt-Fucking-Naked — and living amongst an infant rapist — until the plucky American lead comes along. In short, the musical doesn’t look or sound like it belongs in the 21st century.
Overall, The Book Of Mormon is Spamalot with reduced fat. It tells us little we didn’t know already about Mormonism or its adherents. The portrayal of Uganda and its citizens is hackneyed, whilst the political inclinations are uncomfortably preachy. Having set cartoons and puppetry alight in the past, Parker and Stone have fallen short in their attempt to roughen up musicals. If anything, the piece is a love letter. It says a lot that by curtains, many of the well-heeled audience were on their feet in applause; lefties happy enough with the fly-bitten portrayal of the Dark Continent, conservatives tickled pink by the jovial Jesus. For the two hours it consumes, little new is said in The Book Of Mormon.