Sydney Lyric Theatre, March 9
Had the creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone not called this The Book of Mormon, they could have called it Teeth. I remember those teeth when the Mormons came door-knocking in my childhood. They were as spectacularly white as their shirts, and seemed to loom at you like a horse’s. If their version of Jesus was going to save you, it was going to begin with a halo-of-confidence smile, and this show sets to work with such a smile straight away. Eight of them, to be specific, as Elder Price (Ryan Bondy), Elder Cunningham (AJ Holmes) and the rest learn how to spread the word of Joseph Smith and his made-in-America variant on Christianity.
Straight away, too, Casey Nicholaw’s choreography and the ensemble’s realisation of it is as a sharp as a religious con-job, only much funnier. As with South Park, the animated TV series that catapulted Parker and Stone to fame, that humour is variously black, blue, puerile, witty and satirical.
Yet the laugh-quotient in the first half is oddly uneven. Having made its initial splash with numbers like Hasa Diga Eebowai (which, roughly translated, raises the middle digit at the Almighty), Act One suffers a surprisingly long flat spot that is finally redeemed by Man Up, a hilarious song about Jesus confronting his destiny and absolutely nailing it. By contrast Act Two is riot throughout, which rather begs the question of why, at some point in the show’s history, about 10 minutes was never cut from the first half to keep it at a vigorous boil.
Nonetheless it elevates the good burghers of Salt Lake City to peopling one of the funniest musicals ever, with the satirising of both Mormons and Ugandans (whom they try to convert) more affectionate than vicious. Particular highlights are the vision of hell in Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, complete with the devil shredding some heavy-metal guitar, and the outrageous Baptize Me (“I’m wet with salvation!”).
There’s a conviction in the way the show is played and staged that enhances its comedic success. Bondy is a toothy, priggish Price – effectively the straight man to Cunningham, whom Holmes manages to imbue with cringe-worthiness and charm simultaneously; with gawky limb angles and goofy facial expressions. The singing of Zahra Newman (as Nabulungi) shines out, Rowan Witt is an amusing Elder McKinley, and Augustin Aziz Tchantcho is suitably heavy as the warlord standing over the village in which the missionaries are hoping to save souls and clitorises, alike.
This production (in Sydney after its Melbourne run) replicates the Broadway show, and owes its original snappy direction to Nicholaw and Parker, while the fact that Scott Park (sets) and Ann Roth (costumes) represent design royalty shows in the quality of their work.
I was a Book of Mormon virgin, but now I’m converted. Beyond the comedy the show boasts better songs than most contemporary musicals, whether coming in the guise of classic Broadway musical numbers (Turn It Off), ersatz African (Joseph Smith American Moses) or ersatz Motown (Tomorrow Is a Latter Day). And then beneath the laughs, music and dancing lies a salty lake of hopes dashed and hopes fulfilled that is just deep enough to float the boat of all the rest. Amid all the sight-gags Price and Cunningham are still characters with sufficient flesh on their funny bones to evolve and grow, so we can shuffle out the door feeling a little better about the world. For a moment.