The Book of Mormon is an entertaining and thought-provoking musical that tackles those topics best avoided at dinner parties, from religion to sexual violence. Writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone are fearless in their willingness to romp across boundaries into offensive territory. This should come as no surprise to fans of South Park. However, efforts by both Parker and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, Frozen) to parody and reference famed Broadway musicals along with Disney should delight many theatre-goers all while sucking in their breath in the more outrageous moments of this musical.
The story in short
The musical follows two young and enthusiastic Mormon missionaries – the studious ‘perfect’ Elder Price and the bumbling and genuine Elder Cunningham – as they enter a Ugandan village and attempt to convert the local tribe there. Their efforts are challenged by the more serious problems faced by the village ranging from poverty and AIDS to the violent threats of General Butt-F***ing Naked against them, in particular the women of the tribe. In a slightly predictable turn, Elder Price becomes disillusioned while the less competent Cunningham wins over the tribe by incorporating their problems into his changed version of the Book of Mormon, aided by the Disney Princess-esque Nabalungi, the Chieftain’s daughter who is desperate for some hope in an otherwise bleak life.
The cast has been selected well, with Blake Bowden playing the big smiled, wide eyed all-American Elder Price to perfection and Nyk Bielak as the earnest and foolish Elder Cunningham – an excellent match to Josh Gad who played the role originally. Tigist Strode’s Nabalungi is innocent and hopeful, easily won over in her need to be saved from a difficult life and drives this through her sweet and soaring vocals in the solo ballad Sal Tlay Ka Siti (Salt Lake City), comparable to an Ariel singing Part of Your World or Belle’s Reprise in Beauty and the Beast.
Musical easter eggs
Theatre-goers should watch for the numerous references to other musicals and Disney movies, ranging across quotes, musical riffs or even just similar styling. Early on, the musical illustrates casual racism during a reference to The Lion King whereby black-American neighbour to the Mormons, Mrs Brown performs in a similar style to Rafiki of The Lion King at the airport (despite never having been to Africa herself) and is followed up by a deliberate dig at The Lion King’sHakuna Matata with the catchy and hilarious Hasa Diga Eebowai (F*** you God).
Later on, the musical incorporates a clever version of The Sound of Music’s I have confidence via I believe – “A warlord who shoots people in the face, what’s so scary about that?”. There are also clear parallels to Wicked amongst others in songs like You and Me (but mostly me).
Parents of young children might also note composer Lopez’s clear touch in Baptise me, a delightful spoof of awakening romance in movies, which also bears a strong resemblance to his later work in Frozen, the song Love is an Open Door, while the song Turn it off is a direct contradiction to Let it go.
Continuing relevance in today’s world
On a more serious note, the musical has continued to hold its relevance since its 2011 debut. Its focus on Uganda draws on issues of the time, as the country was, and continues to be, plagued by corruption, poverty and Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which abducted over 30,000 children, along with the Allied Democratic Forces (rebel forces). Since then, the Uganda government has actually signed a truce with the LRA though those at the Congo borders risk ongoing violence from them. The concept of violence from the LRA is typified by the General who attempts to force the women of the tribe into female circumcision and shoots the men of the tribe.
Interestingly, Uganda had actually criminalized female circumcision in 2009 (only 2 years before the musical was released) but it remains an issue in other parts of Africa. Boko Haram in Nigeria is another parallel to the General in The Book of Mormon with its ongoing attacks and its infamous abduction of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014.
The Book of Mormon is entertaining despite of – or perhaps as a result of – its serious themes and often offensive humour. Theatre-goers might find themselves laughing while wondering whether they really should or at other times, completely stunned. So is it worth seeing? The answer is absolutely yes, but be prepared to leave behind your moral and ethical views at times as this is a musical designed to mock everyone in society, particularly religious people, no holds barred.
The Book of Mormon is playing at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney until 8 February before heading to Brisbane and Adelaide. www.bookofmormon.com.au