It seems a little late to be reviewing a stage show that has been open since early 2013, as well as being a phenomenal success on Broadway since 2011, but having only seen it this week I felt that it would be criminal to not try and encourage other people to book tickets for the West End whilst they still can. Everyone that has any interest in stage shows or musical theatre will already be very familiar to this runaway hit show, as will anyone who is a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone – the geniuses behind South Park and Team America – but for those who have not seen it yet, I would highly recommend The Book Of Mormon…
The less you know about the story the better, but as a rough outline the plot is this: Two young American Mormon elders, one an egotistical go-getter and the other a well-meaning dimwit, are teamed up to become missionaries to convert people to the Church of Latter Day Saints in deepest Uganda. When they arrive they are confronted with skeptical village folk who are trying to avoid a local warlord who is forcibly circumcising the young women. Both of the Mormons, along with some more who are already there, must overcome their prejudices to try and win the hearts and minds of the locals before the senior members of the church arrive to assess their progress.
The show combines a cheesy coming-of-age narrative, with a satirical confrontation of western cultures relationship with African countries and their problems, all underpinned with the history and beliefs of the Mormon faith – with large portions of high-camp musical theatre.
The show manages to pull off a brilliant deflection as it systematically ridicules the absurdity of Mormons beliefs, yet leaving you with a highly sympathetic view of the Mormons themselves. The main characters are loveable and (kind of) altruistic, who have nothing but approbation for the locals, even the warlord and his thugs.
By using ironic racism and extremely offensive stereotypes they are proving a point about how audiences view Ugandans and subjects such as AIDS and poverty. It is undeniable that the show has a message to get across (as Parker and Stone so often do), it just so happens that intertextual musical theatre is the best medium.
The music itself is absolutely perfect. Also on the writing team is Robert Lopez, who wrote the masterful Avenue Q – another play that uses lowbrow humour to highlight important issues. The song titles alone give you an insight into the tone of the play, my favourites being: “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”, “All American Prophet”, and “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” etc. etc.
The best song of the night though (a tough and obviously subjective decision), is the main character Elder Price’s song about the Mormon faith, “I Believe”. The central theme of the lyrics is about not letting your faith be broken during hard times as ‘Mormon’s just believe” and features the immortal lines “I believe… that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America! I am a Mormon and a Mormons just believes…” and “I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people! (Black people!) You can be a Mormon! A Mormon that just believes!”
The set design of the show is a huge part of the charm, as Utah becomes Uganda, which becomes Orlanda, which becomes Hell… and there are historical voiceovers narrated by Parker and Stone in their South Park voices. The genius of Parker and Stone is to make the cheapness intentional and constantly highlight their abundance of clichés – creating humour by distancing the audience and constantly reminding them of the wonderful absurdity of musical theatre.
Hopefully this show will become a staple of the West End for many months to come and the songs get recongised as contemporary classics, as they so deserve. If you are worried about the price, then I understand as it’s a pricey night out; but if you only go and see one show this year….
The Book Of Mormon is currently running at the Prince Of Wales Theatre