Theatre Review: The Book of Mormon will make you laugh til it hurts even if you feel you shouldn’t (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

What do you get when you combine a much-maligned American religion, Disney-movie songs and the writers of a politically incorrect adult cartoon? A ridiculously so-wrong-it’s-right musical called The Book of Mormon. As close to Broadway as you’re likely to see on the Australian stage, this show is an all-singing, all-dancing, joke-filled tribute to American musical theatre. The Book of Mormon may not change your life but it will certainly make you forget your own troubles for the evening and leave your cheeks aching with laughter.

But be warned, this is an adult show. There’s strong language, violence, adult themes and sexual references; exactly what you’d expect from the creators of South Park, Team America and Avenue Q. In much the same way Monty Python’s Spamalot poked fun at the musical theatre genre while still delivering a fan-worthy interpretation of the Holy Grail, the Book of Mormon will have South Park fans in raptures with its racist jokes, foul language and cringeworthy toilet humour. But the show delivers these elements with a bright, Broadway smile and serious jazz hands, so even a non-South Park fan like me can enjoy the experience.

Also, don’t let the title put you off. You certainly don’t have to know a lot about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to understand this show. There are plenty of exposition scenes to help you through the religious doctrine, but mostly you just need to know that the young members of the church are required to go on a two-year mission to try and convert souls to the Mormon church. Which is where our story starts.

All-star Mormon Elder Price and socially awkward Elder Cunningham are paired together to serve their mission in a remote village in Uganda. But there are no singing and dancing animals in this part of Africa. Instead, they encounter poverty, AIDs and a dangerous militia who plan on circumcising the village women and murdering anyone who stands in their way. Yup, it’s looking pretty dire for our all-American duo. Can they evade the machine-gun toting militia, baptise a few souls and return to their promised land with their faith intact? Only the prophets will tell.

The original Broadway production has been perfectly recreated for the Australian stage, even employing two veterans of the US companies to take the lead roles of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. While it’s a shame our local talent wasn’t given the chance to shine, there is a certain Broadway authenticity that Ryan Bondy (Price) and A.J. Holmes (Cunningham) bring to the performance. That brash, almost nasal singing style and uber-confident stage presence that Broadway directors love to showcase is a vital element of a production which effectively satirises its own genre.

As Elder Price, Bondy’s cheesy smile and all-American (although he’s Canadian) good looks make a good foundation for a strong, lead performance. His tenor is clear and powerful and he certainly knows his way around the stage. Half straight-man, half butt-of-the-joke, Bondy manages to make you feel sympathy for a potentially unlikeable character.

In the role made famous by Josh Gad, Holmes seriously holds his own as Elder Cunningham. He is the master of timing and every ounce of comedy is wrung out of his performance. He is also a tremendous vocalist – Man Up, in which Elder Cunningham is given the chance to step out of the shadows, is one of the many highlights of the show.

But as strong as the imports are, the Aussie cast members are equally as good. Rowan Witt basically steals the show with his portrayal of Elder McKinley. He plays the sexually confused mission leader with poise and presence and matches the overseas stars’ energy step for step. His performance alone is reason enough to see this show.

Also doing the home-team proud is Zahra Newman who plays Nabulungi, daughter of the village ‘chief’. Her vocals are superb, especially during Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

And the ensemble is brilliant. The Mormons are as strong a group of young male singers and dancers as I’ve seen since Tap Dogs, and the Ugandan villagers seem to genuinely revel in their joyous dance numbers and acapella moments. Their harmonies are on point and their solo moments are equally confident. And they all deliver Casey Nicholaw’s choreography with gusto and precision.

The Book of Mormon’s songs are incredibly catchy and will have you grooving away in your seat, even when the lyrics contain less than savoury language and seriously adult themes. Musical Director, David Young, manages to make the nine-piece band sound like a full orchestra. Stay for the play out after the curtain call to hear the lead guitarist go to town!

Scott Pask’s set draws a wonderful contrast between the bright, green rolling hills and shiny amusements of the US and the dry, dusty, downtrodden Africa, where everything seems slightly muted. The set draws a little influence (understandably) from Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, using saturated lighting against the white backdrop to give the stage an orangey glow and ripped, ‘recycled’ fabric flown in to shorten the stage. In a nod to the pageantry of religion, Pask has framed the entire show with a stained-glass proscenium, topped with the angel Moroni.

While half the cast spend the majority of the show in the Mormon uniform (white short-sleeved shirt, black suit pants, tie), costume designer Ann Roth still gets to let her creativity run free. Her pieces for the African cast, in particular, are well-researched but still very theatrical.

Amid rising religious and racial tensions, it is hard to believe that this show could ever have been given the green light, let alone become a Broadway smash. But somehow the Book of Mormon just works. Perhaps because it delivers its jibes with an undercurrent of social conscience. Parker, Lopez and Stone are smart, satirical comedians and in mocking the Mormons (and Africa, and the good old US of A) they also point to what makes us all equal and the ridiculousness of racial (and religious) discrimination. As co-creator Matt Stone explains in the program notes, one man’s blasphemy is another man’s scripture. At the heart of it, we’re all just looking for something to believe in. (And by the way, get the program, it’s a fascinating and very funny read.)

There’s been a lot of hype around this show – people even camped overnight outside the Sydney Lyric to get their hands on $20 tickets – so it’s hard not to let high expectations get in the way of your experience. The good news is the Book of Mormon well and truly delivers on the hype.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Book of Mormon is playing at the Sydney Lyric at the Star through to August 2018. For tickets go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 9th March.

Photo credit Jeff Busby