Review: The Book of Mormon

Ann Foo

South Park creators reinvent the musical in this surprisingly sweet tribute.
Review: The Book of Mormon

Image: Ryan Bondy, A.J. Holmes and the original Australian cast of The Book of Mormon. Photo (c) Jeff Busby.

Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) is an overachieving rising star in the Mormon Church with big dreams and bigger ambitions. So he is less than impressed when he is teamed up with Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), an awkward, socially inept compulsive liar, and sent to Uganda for their maiden mission (instead of his dream destination, Orlando). Tasked with spreading the word of God in a village stricken with poverty, AIDS and a local warlord intent on practicing female circumcision, the duo find the true meaning of Mormon in the most unlikely place.

Image: Ryan Bondy as Elder Price in THE BOOK OF MORMON. Photo (c) Jeff Busby.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park), have a well-deserved reputation for offensive, take-no-prisoners comedy, so you’d be forgiven for assuming this is a story which pokes fun at Mormons. However, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the treatment of the faithful leads in this story is actually quite sweet. Sure, there's giggles to be had at that peppy smile, that can-do attitude, the sweet naivety of Elders Price and Cunningham. However, it’s a likeable laughter. Both characters are extremely empathetically drawn, to the extent that even the non-faithful among the audience might find themselves barracking for a baptism.

Similarly with their Ugandan counterparts, who cop their fair share of jokes about AIDS and the virgin cleansing myth. But ultimately, for all their poverty and lack of education, their metaphorical interpretation of the Book turns out to be way more sophisticated than that of the Mormon missionaries' understanding of their own text.

Herein lies the genius of The Book of Mormon – it is comedy of juxtaposition, in that here we have two polar opposite cultures coming together. But it’s also comedy of subversion – every single stereotype depicted is eventually subverted. The hero becomes the villain, the student becomes the teacher, the faithful become the faithless. At the heart of subversion is another of the more overlooked traits of the Parker/Stone brand: the idea that everyone can be made fun of, because everyone is equally human and imperfect.

On opening night of the Sydney premiere , it was pretty clear that expectations were high. This is a seasoned production that has enjoyed rave reviews and many a Tony throughout countless runs on Broadway. Did it live up to the hype? Hell yeah. This production is slicker than a Mormons tap shoe. The leads have been imported from North America to reprise roles they have performed in several international productions of the play. This has attracted some criticism from the local industry, however I interpret that move more as an effort to stick with a winning formula rather than as a slight on local talent.

Winning they are – in particular Holmes, who has honed this performance to perfection, incorporating awkward physical comedy stylings into the dance numbers seamlessly. Of the local talent, Zahra Newman as Nabulungi stands out as a rising star, injecting such compassion into her performance such that a supporting role is rendered one of the more memorable aspects of the play.

Image: Zahra Newman and A.J. Holmes in THE BOOK OF MORMON. Photo (c) Jeff Busby.

Surprisingly, the greatest achievement of the Book of Mormon are not the jokes (which are hilarious) or the story (which is sweet, but ultimately predictable), it is in how it has resurrected the much maligned genre of the musical.

Musicals are a somewhat naff format, dated in their earnestness, superficial in their narrative, with frankly random justifications for bursting into song and dance. But here, Parker/Stone and co-creator Robert Lopez have created a musical that appeals to people who generally might not be inclined to like musicals. Part of it’s success is in how seamlessly the music has been integrated into the story. Many of the important story beats are revealed during the musical numbers, so the songs are not just awkwardly sandwiched in between narrative acts the way many musicals are structured. Hence, the energy never stops. We never have to wait out a song to get on with the story. Song and story are a perfectly integrated vehicle which we experience in tandem.

Whilst mainstreaming the medium, it remains very true to the core principals of the musical genre. The optimism of the music lends itself perfectly to a story of faith. That joie de vivre that can only be expressed through the power of song and dance is as close to heaven as any living person can aspire to. And that wicked humour is as close to hell as anyone would want to get. The Book of Mormon tells the story of the middle ground – the earth, with it's ridiculous, imperfect and fallible humans.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

The Book of Mormon
Trey Parker (Co-Director, Book, Music, Lyrics)
Matt Stone (Book, Music, Lyrics)
Robert Lopez (Book, Music, Lyrics)
Casey Nicholaw (Co-Director and Choreographer)
Scott Pask (Scenic Design)
Ann Roth (Costume Design)

Sydney Lyric Theatre, Pyrmont
Until 2 September 2018

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Ann is a guild award-winning Sydney based film editor and writer.