If you’ve been paying attention to musical theatre news over the past two years, you know that The Book of Mormon has a passionate and devout following of fans who swear it’s the long-awaited saviour of the artform. The show won nine Tonys in 2011, the cast recording reached number three on the Billboard chart, and tickets for its Broadway run are rare and expensive.
Torontonians who were quick enough to get seats to the touring production’s visit to our town, brought to us by Mirvish Productions, will be relieved to know that the hype is warranted (believe it or not). Let it be known, though, that tickets are nowhere near worth the criminal price tag—over $1,000—that some re-sellers are asking for online (better to put that money towards a trip to New York City).
Even so, anyone with a sense of humour, an ear for a good tune, and a stomach for curse words will walk away from the Princess of Wales Theatre smiling from ear to ear and humming “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” to themselves. Those who attend by winning the $25 ticket lottery before each performance (the only method available for those without pre-purchased seats to the sold-out run) will have an extra spring in their step.
Here’s the gist: Elder Price (Mark Evans) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) are two 19-year-old Mormons on a mission to convert and baptize new followers in a small, troubled village in northern Uganda. They’re an odd couple: the former is relentlessly determined to go down in the record books with his preaching, and the latter is a self-confessed fibber and follower. The pair is faced with challenges not covered in missionary school: famine, illness, poverty, AIDS, rape, fatal insects, and a military commander bent on circumcising the village’s women. Along the way, their strength of character and their faith is tested, but there is a happy ending here. The resulting lesson takes the Elders, and the audience, by surprise. It’s easy to assume this satirical script will simply skewer The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and organized religion with biting (and incredibly off-colour) jokes, but it actually strives to look on the bright side.
The Book of Mormon is the result of a partnership between South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and Avenue Q‘s co-creator Robert Lopez. Where Avenue Q got its edge by mixing Sesame Street-like puppets with onstage sex and explicit racism, The Book of Mormon achieves the same effect by blending South Park‘s irreverent humour with feel-good tunes in the style of old Disney cartoons and show-stopping musical numbers reminiscent of classic Broadway. The tap dancing and jazz hands in “Turn It Off” and the passionate belts in Elder Price’s ballad, “I Believe,” are sincere love letters to musical theatre, while ardent South Park fans will spot winks to the cartoon in the way Joseph Smith is characterized in “All American Prophet” (his costume is right out of the TV show) and in Elder Cunningham’s “Man Up,” where Cunningham highlights the word “Up” with extra glottal gusto.
That song is also where sketch comedian Christopher John O’Neill, in his theatrical debut, shows his lack of musical theatre training. He mans up, but he powers down. The ensembles of African villagers and Mormon missionaries fall a little flat as well, especially when it comes to Casey Nicholaw’s sharp choreography. Evans, though, delivers an Elder Price so earnest that you can’t fault him (the character, not the actor) for his pomposity. And whatever O’Neil lacks in training, he makes up for in awkward charm. Grey Henson as the closeted Ugandan Mormon missionary leader Elder McKinley, another fresh face in his professional debut, is another standout.
Though a few jokes in The Book of Mormon earn laughs with shock rather than craft, that doesn’t happen quite as often as you might think. Stone, Parker, and Lopez aren’t making any big revelations here, and it isn’t their mandate to earn sympathy for Africans or demonize the Mormon religion. The Book of Mormon presents a whole lot of truths that demonstrate that the world can be an awful, awful place (we’re sure many people have yelled the equivalent of “Hasa Diga Eebowai” into the sky), but it stops short of judging people for finding ways to live happy, peaceful lives through religion.
It’s still not a perfect show (catchy songs make up for a lack of dramatic action), but The Book of Mormon‘s following is one to consider joining.